By Samantha Stephens, PhD

“Consider, for a moment,           

the silence — 

this terrible white          


all the things                

we never say, 

and why?” 

— Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld  

“I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” 
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”  


A thin book wrapped thickly in black ink, Kei Miller’s In Nearby Bushes utilizes and subverts our expectations of color and legibility. The confrontation and experimentation with the legibility of Blackness is made overt in the cover design of his most recent collection, though it is present throughout his oeuvre. In a visual poem that opens his award-winning essay collection, Things I Have Withheld, Miller connects the abstract operations of silence and silencing with its material formations of blank, specifically “white // space” (xi). In doing so, he addresses the politics of Black legibility and physical place/lessness. Covered in columns of newspaper clippings, In Nearby Bushes subverts the sharp white background of the page, as the poet imagines and images the terrible white space of the newspaper reporting the deaths of innumerable people “in nearby bushes.” If you were to tune into the evening news in Jamaica any day of the week, you would certainly hear reports of any number of criminal activities in nearby bushes. Unsettling a trite, commonplace phrase in Jamaican popular culture, Miller’s meditation on the concept of the bush highlights the unseen, silenced, marginalized bodies located in this placeless place.

The book’s cover introduces the subversive poetics of inverted views, where each iteration of “in nearby bushes” is literally highlighted in yellow, highly contrasting the black background. Furthermore, most of the cover displays white text, causing a phenomenon known as halation—a visual fuzzing effect. This choice literally requires the eyes to open wider to absorb more light to see the text in this fashion. Defying, subverting, and resisting the optimal legibility of the traditional black text against a white background, the cover displays the inverse —transforming Zora Neale Hurston’s imagery of Black life in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” referenced in the epigraph. Miller’s engagement with Black death in Jamaica resembles the negatives in photography, a color reversal. What happens when we look through this lens? Miller offers alternative, otherwise, and imaginative ways of seeing the shape of a place by rupturing how we move through language, landscapes, people, (hi)stories and silences.

Mirroring the inverted expectations of the page on the book cover, the poetic form on the white pages within replicates the play with legibility through the typographic treatment of the newspaper entries. First captured in full, and in black ink, a February 2018 newspaper clipping report of the discovery of the “decomposed body” of a young woman “in [Hanover’s] nearby bushes” begins the “In Nearby Bushes” poetic sequence. On the four pages that follow, the report is reproduced with varied typographic presentations. The poet selects a few letters, words, and phrases from the 17-line newspaper report to present in traditional black ink and casts the rest in a light grey that almost blends into the white background of the page. These greyscale pieces gesture to the work of redaction as Miller plays with visibility and silence, creating poems out of the brief and troubled histories documented in the Jamaica Star. This move is in conversation with the concepts of Black annotation and Black redaction discussed in Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Positioning herself in the wake of slavery, Sharpe offers anti-colonial methods of ethical viewing practices, or as she writes: “toward seeing and reading otherwise, toward reading and seeing something in excess of what is in the frame” (117). This “otherwise” is a kind of refusal, a practice which tackles the assaults on Black life and counters the legacy of antiblackness. While we may be accustomed to the practice of redaction concerning government documents, Black redaction exploits and celebrates visibility with silence, making alternative viewpoints public instead of obscuring them.  

I argue that Miller’s typographic choices work at the interstices of silence, or redaction, and visibility, or annotation, to rupture our view. With each repetition of the story in the titular sequence, fewer and fewer selections are highlighted, progressively obscuring the original text. The final poem reads, “Here where Blossoms the night”—beginning by borrowing the “H” and “er” in “Hanover” and ending using the “ght” from the “fighting dogs.” A new narrative is created from identical source material with each selection transforming history and journalism into visual poetry. A riff on the visual poem opening his essay collection, these newspaper-poems are markedly thinking about space. However, instead of experimenting with textual size and space, their focus is color and its absence. With Miller’s meditationon silences and white space, publications such as Jamaica Star, Jamaica Supreme Court Criminal Appeal, McKoy’s News, Loop Jamaica, and Radio Jamaica News and their iterations, become visual poetry. And these newspaper-poems take up the silences subsumed by the nearby bushes and retell these stories. Adding emphasis and blurring select details, I see the work as poetic instead of purely historical, providing a referent and so making “some— / thing torn // and new” (Brathwaite 270). This kind of writing aligns with Kamau Brathwaite’s poetics, not only in its play with textual space but also in its interest in Caribbean placemaking in the wake of slavery. While Brathwaite notably composes this image to metaphorize the process of creolization, blending and weaving old roots with new traditions, what happens when this simultaneous tearing/destruction and production/generation is manifested materially? 

Miller’s work does not seek to physically shred newspapers, but it is an invitation to ponder white spaces, textually and otherwise. Considering Miller’s meditation on “the silence— // this terrible white // space” in Things I Have Withheld, a fascinating detail is that these newspaper-poem redactions cannot be found in the table of contents. These silences function as an enactment of placeless-ness—that is, an indeterminable space or location, an almost there or ‘round the corner, and otherwise, etc. These poems and histories are—especially in the case of the first five pages of the “In Nearby Bushes” sequence—in a silence, in a white space, echoing things that have been withheld.

The management of identity and visibility is an overt way Miller engages Black death. A nod to Black redaction is made on the very first page of the poem series, insofar as the name of the victim is literally redacted with the use of six successive lowercase x’s: “xxxxxx” (Miller 43). Yet a deeper look reveals that “x” both marks and conceals. This usage works to show respect and offer dignity to the woman discarded in the real and symbolic bushes: “What is it called — the nameless space between, as if nothing / important happened here. As if no one important happened here” (Miller 36). In this way, her legacy is shifted from the placeless place of the nearby bushes to an otherwise, richly unsilenced space in the x’s. This richness lends itself to Miller’s textual reimagining and re-imaging of the newspaper’s report. His newspaper-poems refuse the detached journalistic voice with the text itself—using color gradations to produce various versions of the story and a different lens with which to view Black life and death.

We might consider the typographical play with the newspapers as redaction and the work of (re)defining as annotation. A striking and relevant intervention Miller offers in this stead is his meditation on the word “autoclaps,” which appears in his 2016 novel, Augustown. Miller’s novel weaves a tragically triumphant story of the community of August Town, centered around the acclaimed and enigmatic spiritual leader, Alexander Bedward, and following the reverberations of his radical sociopolitical ruptures from 1920 to the 1980s. Augustown opens with the promise of “the terrible thing,” a thing that becomes synonymous with the term “autoclaps” (Miller 5). The narrator supplies the reader with definitions and reflections on this Jamaican word: “A strange word, autoclaps … It’s not the kind of word you will find the Oxford dictionary. But maybe if you were lucky enough to find a dictionary that has in it blackpeople’s words, then the entry for autoclaps would read something like this …” (Miller 103). With a disputed etymology, “autoclaps” is layered with many meanings, versions, and intentions. From calamity to heartache with inflections of Greek, German, and Jamaican language, the multiplicity of the word is reflected even in the form it is defined. The imagined dictionary definitions of this slippery term appearin Miller’s novel as:
“AUTOCLAPS: (Noun). Jamaican dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble
AFTERCLAP: Noun. An unexpected, often unpleasant sequel to a matter that has been considered closed. In German, ‘achterklap’
AUTOCLAPS: the collapse of the heart; a small apocalypse; the afterclap.” (157-9)

The repeated revision of the term, shifting with each definition, plays on and with the very act of defining by annotating the “original” with new versions and variations. This technique of defining and redefining is markedly creative; it invokes dialogue, simile, rhetorical questions, and repetition. These annotations cause ’ruption as they fracture the impact of “sharp white backgrounds” (Hurston 153).

The imagined dictionary which defines words like “autoclaps” ruptures and collapses the knowledge systems and logics of the Oxford dictionaries, archives, and newspapers. All of Miller’s dictionary entries are like an autoclaps; in fact, “autoclaps” is annotation and redaction working together. This iteration of autoclaps is not from an apocalyptic destruction or even the collapse of one’s heart, but we might understand it more generously by reading it alongside Black annotation and redaction. “Autoclaps” is mobilized in a productive way, towards a destruction of ideas and ideals that harm Black life and living and foreground the silence. For Miller, this practice is intimately linked to place and landscape and is not limited to this novel but is also found quite prominently in Miller’s poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014).

The main narrative interspersed throughout The Cartographer in a 27-poem sequence is an extended dialogue between a cartographer and a Rastaman, who each have different ideological stances to mapping. Yet between these conversations appear another sequence focused on the Jamaican landscape aptly called “Place Names.” The Place Name sequence addresses the peculiar histories of places named and renamed in response to colonial and postcolonial moments. Miller creatively locates “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” in the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The speaker of the poem draws parallels between the circumstances of the naming of “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” and its implications with the intrusion of Goldilocks into the “house of bears,” that is: “In plain english: do not enter without invitation” (Miller 26). The format of the “Place Name” sequence is presented as dictionary entries, implying a definitive meaning, but subverting and mocking the format of (Western) epistemology—in effect, redefining and rewriting the Jamaican landscape. The poem ends with a qualifying statement: “just know that this ground, these / bushes, these trees observe you with suspicion many / centuries deep” (my emphasis) (Miller 26). In this poetic imagination, time is collapsed and condensed, and Goldilocks’ presence not only impacts the landscape of “Me-No-Sen”, but the landscape redefines her as “rude pickney” and recasts the ostensibly innocent blonde girl in the position of the colonizer.

Miller’s poetics of inverted views, thus, illustrates how the bushes can produce alternatives as they are personified, observing the trespassers, rather than being relegated to a passive place inscribed with violence. What is unique about this iteration is this place is not quite a place, insofar as it is a space of “refuge that evade[s] the colonial order” (Goffe 10). In her article “Unmapping the Caribbean,” Goffe supplements the toponymic history: “This now-extinct village settlement was established and named by runaways fleeing enslavement on plantations in the parish of Trelawny in 1812.” Now absorbed into the more recognizable Aberdeen area of Trelawny, the archetypal cartographer, Rastaman, and even Goldilocks enter and are made visible in this landscape through the suspicion of the bushes—a practice of autoclaps/afterclap, a rupture of colonial and plantation logic where the Black background is foregrounded.

Miller’s reference to bushes extends the “Place Names” sequence from Cartographer to “Place Name: Oracabessa –”, part of the poetic sequence entitled ‘Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,’ in the collection In Nearby Bushes. The mock dictionary entry opens with a caveat: “origins disputed but most likely leave-over from the / Spanish” (Miller 34). A much longer form than the autoclaps/afterclap and “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come,” this meditation on Oracabessa thinks multilingually and speculatively about origins. From the whimsical wanderings of Goldilocks to the linguistic and etymological layers of Christopher Columbus’ search for gold in “Oracabessa –”, Miller’s work is interested in annotating and redacting the “completeness of genocide” on several planes (Miller 34). The poet disputes the silences and erasures located in the white (golden) spaces, inverting them to illuminate the Black background for those willing to open their eyes wider. Places like Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come and Oracabessa are multivalent in their localities, retaining histories and memories otherwise rendered invisible. Playing with color, legibility and identity, Miller showcases an alternative layer of the Jamaican landscape.

“In nearby bushes” transforms from a trite, commonplace term too often heard on Jamaican evening news to a richly dense landscape that embeds theoretical and material practices of decolonial praxis. Considering how place and placemaking can be a violence, even apocalyptic, Miller scars the sharp white background of the page and visualizes Black life and Black death through alternative lenses. Negotiating Blackness with the ink on the page, his work illustrates how the textual becomes political. Miller’s body of work showcases a careful, critical engagement with legibility, identity, landscape and (hi)stories in Caribbean poetry and poetics, bringing a nuanced meaning to “something torn and new.”    


Works Cited

Brathwaite, Kamau. “Jou’vert,” The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 267-270.
Goffe, Tao Leigh. “Unmapping the Caribbean: Toward a Digital Praxis of Archipelagic Sounding.” archipelagoes 5, December 2020, pp. 1-23.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152–5.
Miller, Kei. Augustown: A Novel. Pantheon Books, 2017.
Miller, Kei. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2014.
Miller, Kei. In Nearby Bushes. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2019.
Miller, Kei. Things I Have Withheld: Essays. Canongate Books Ltd., 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Samantha Stephens is a PhD candidate in English and a Doctoral Fellow in Caribbean Literatures, Arts and Cultures at the University of Virginia. Working in the fields of Caribbean Studies and Digital Humanities, her research focuses on Caribbean poetry and poetics with attention to visual experimentation in the digital age. She has published on the typographic innovations of Kei Miller and Olive Senior’s poetry in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Her interest in Black feminist technologies and Caribbean digital archival methods propel her current project, in which she blends literary and artistic practices to reimagine Black Caribbean pasts and futures.


By Keisha Allan, PhD


Malika Booker, an “ex/isle” writer of diasporic literature,  interrogates colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s first collection of poetry, Pepper Seed, explores the marginalization and vulnerability of women confronted with colonial legacies of violence. Booker verbalizes the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds inflicted on women’s bodies and psyches. Tragic, brutalized, and wounded female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated against the Black female body.  Although Booker’s collection explores the pain of Black womanhood, her poetry also abounds with depictions of female personas as heroines, survivors, interlocutors, and visionaries. Booker’s collection moves beyond legacies of pain and trauma towards narratives of resistance and survival. In Pepper Seed, Bookerenvisions Black womanhood anew, using the Black female body as a site of anticolonial resistance.

Pepper Seed reflects Frantz Fanon’s description of the psychological impact of colonial violence on the colonized subject. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon posits that colonial rule is “the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native” (38). Commenting on the impact of colonization on the colonized, Fanon insists that the colonial subject is brutalized by the sadistic practices of the colonizer to such an extent that it “turns him into an animal” (42). The colonizer deploys violence to force the colonized body into submission. Consequently, post-colonial societies that emerge from legacies of violence repeat the former colonizer’s brutal practices.

 In Pepper Seed, Booker links colonialism to the endemic violence in the Caribbean. Booker traces a lineage of pain from the colonial to post-colonial era through vivid depictions of domestic violence in the Caribbean, which allows readers to bear witness to the violence that afflicts the lives of Black women. Pepper Seed interrogates the ways in which colonial violence is resisted, reproduced, and appropriated in familial, personal, and intimate relationships in the postcolonial societies.

 Black women perpetuate colonial violence through their disciplinary practices, using the maternal whip to correct deviant behavior. The poem, “Pepper Sauce,” depicts a grandmother’s vicious assault in response to her granddaughter’s theft of money from her purse. Reflective of the colonizer/colonized relationship, the grandmother exploits her position of authority in her granddaughter’s life and uses corporal punishment to cultivate an atmosphere of fear and submission in the household. The poem begins with the grandmother diligently grinding peppers marked for corporal punishment:

I pray for that grandmother, grinding her teeth,
one hand pushing in fresh hot peppers, and all, turning
the handle of that old iron mill, squeezing the limes, knowing
they will burn and cut raw like acid. (15)

These peppers have been specially prepared to inflict pain on the body of her granddaughter, Anne. The granddaughter assists with the preparations, oblivious to her grandmother’s violent intentions. The grandmother ties her granddaughter to the bedposts, rendering her powerless and vulnerable to insurmountable torture:

I hear she spread she out, then say,
I go teach you to go and steal from me, Miss Lady.

I hear she scoop that pepper sauce out a white enamel bowl,
and pack it deep into she granddaughter’s pussy I hear there was

one piece of screaming in the house that day. (15)

The image of Anne naked, defenseless, and tied to the bedposts, mirrors the cruelties enslaved women suffered at the hands of the slave masters. The grandmother’s rampage of torture culminates with sexual violence. The pepper sauce burns Anne’s genitalia, scorching her skin, inflicting brutal torture. The pain is so excruciating that she screams incessantly, emitting sharp, piercing cries that resound throughout the house. The grandmother ignores her granddaughter’s cries, subjecting Anne to relentless torment. Granny inflicts vicious punishment beyond the bounds of “moderate correction”—akin to the malicious and sadistic practices of the slave master who imposed excessive punishment for minor infractions. Anne’s physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her grandmotherlingers in the mind long after the poem has been read, leaving the reader with the bitter taste of the raw, hot pepper seed of pain.

 “Red Ants Bite,” depicts another grandmother-granddaughter relationship fraught with violence. The speaker is tormented with memories of her verbally abusive deceased grandmother who constantly unleashed a barrage of vitriolic attacks. The poem begins with the speaker’s recollection of her grandmother’s abusive rants:

You will be a whore just like your mother
Granny told me all the time,
Like saying good morning. (10)

Here, Granny perpetuates colonial perceptions of Black women as “promiscuous” and “untamed” which provided the moral justification for the control and abuse of the Black female body. The grandmother’s incessant use of violent language inflicts emotional and psychological distress:

I tried to make her love me,
but her mouth was brutal,
like hard-wire brush, it scraped me,

took skin off my bones, made me bleed
where no one could see,
so I’d shrink, a tiny rocking foetus (10).

Her grandmother’s venomous words “took skin off her bones” and “made her bleed,” leaving scars hidden beneath the skin. The speaker yearns for her grandmother’s love even though she suffers under the weight of her acerbic recrimination. Emotionally battered by her grandmother’s vitriolic attacks, the speaker regresses—emotionally and mentally—to a “tiny rocking foetus,” retreating to a protective space, impervious to her grandmother’s verbal assaults. Here, the speaker describes the psychological impact of colonial inheritances of violence on women’s bodies and psyches.

Connecting the personal to the political, the speaker illustrates how Granny’s viciousness is born out of her own past oppression under the brutal conditions of Caribbean plantocracy. In the final section of the poem, the speaker gives voice to her deceased grandmother’s personal story of sexual abuse:

I lived till me turn one hundred and one,
live through back-break in backra sun.
I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.

This creamy skin draw buckman, blackman,
coolieman, like prize. And if you did hear sweet talk,
if you did see how much fine fuck I get. (13)

Conceived through the violent act of rape, “a slave baby mixed with plantation white,” (13)Granny’s body was burdened by the trauma of sexual violence. Brutalized, commodified, and appropriated, Granny was exploited to satisfy the desires of the white slave masters and, in a vicious cycle, the violence of plantocracy shaped Granny’s disciplinary practices with her grandchildren. Emotionally, physically, and sexually assaulted under the brutal conditions of slavery, the speaker’s grandmother repeats the violent practices of the colonizer.

The perpetuation of violence continues in intimate relationships where male partners wield their power over women’s bodies. In “After Liming in the Local Rum Shop on Diamond Street,” the speaker exposes the wanton violence to which women are subjected by abusive male partners:

He slashes his cutlass across her face,
Her raised hand failed to shield
Against the second blow.
One finger cut clean off. […]
She took him back in. I hear no apology left his lips. (60)

Here, the female persona is subjected to relentless violence, rendering her permanently crippled. Yet, the woman’s posture of resignation illustrates how violence is intimately connected to social and cultural norms in the Caribbean.

The poems in Pepper Seed juxtapose the paradoxical combination of pain and violence with enduring depictions of feminine resistance and survival. In addition to the tragic, brutalized, or moribund female figures that permeate Booker’s collection, the poems also portray female personas as heroines, survivors, and visionaries who use their bodies as sites of anticolonial resistance. In “Death of an Overseer,” Booker depicts the jubilation that erupts on the plantation when the brutal overseer meets his death. The death of the tyrant inspires“women to raise up they red petticoats and dance, trampling he grave, while machetes pound stone, lips drown rum and burn on highwine” (16) in an act of anticolonial resistance.

Booker’s collection illustrates how Black women adapt, revise and appropriate the colonizer’s violent practices to protect their bodies from gendered violence. While the female personas learn violent behaviors from their grandmothers, strategies of survival are also passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters. This links both legacies of violence and resistance to matrilineal family structures. In “Warning,” the speaker recalls her grandmother’s stern advice on how to respond to abusive male partners. The grandmother encourages her granddaughter to castrate her male abuser, stripping him of his manhood, rendering him powerless and submissive:

Some great grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
Each daughter told over and over,
like brush your teeth, till it stick. (41)  

The poem illustrates how colonial inheritances of violence incite women to imagine ways to shield their bodies from abusive male partners. Drawing inspiration from the colonizer’s barbaric practices of corporeal mutilation, Black women devise violent strategies of resistance against patriarchal repression. The speaker foregrounds the Black female subject’s survival rather than her oppression at the hands of men. Ultimately, the speaker heeds her grandmother’s warning when she invites an inebriated male friend to sleep over:

I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,
took down that knife, marched upstairs,
told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.
Don’t think it and if you do, don’t sleep. (41)

Here, the survival strategies shared within generations and across different generations of women empower the female speaker to confront and fight back against threats of gendered violence.

In Booker’s work, we see a relentless preoccupation with dismantling colonial inheritances that have been used to regulate Black female bodies. Booker’s female characters also deploy their erotic power to strike back against the societal censure of female sexuality. Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource of feminine power that can be deployed by women to resist social and patriarchal oppression. She posits that “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings” (53). In “Sweet Liquor,” Booker’s speaker embraces her sexuality and eroticism, which Audre Lorde characterizes as “the lifeforce of women” (55). The narrator of this poem describes a fete scene in which she indulges in carnal pleasure:

girl, if you see thing! the way they does pile in here when fete door bus open on saturday nights. pour in like animals. looking sweet too bad. girl if you see the way they does parade and carry on i does close meh eyes and lean back on them hard bodies and wine. (45)

The speaker indulges in “a host of unruly joy,” transgressing gendered mores of female propriety. She assumes the role of a voyeur, disrupting a practice that is accorded to men. Here, the male body is objectified and sexualized under the female panoptic gaze. In “Sweet Liquor,” the speaker is endowed with agency, allowing her to create her own alternative world of female desire.

Similarly, in “Notting Hill,” the Black female body is deployed as the central site of resistance against colonial mores of female propriety. The speaker catalogues carnal delight through pleasures of the flesh. Meanwhile, the speaker’s aunt sinks into eroticism, using her body for her own personal fulfillment. She joyfully indulges in Notting Hill carnival celebrations, gyrating her body to the sounds of the soca music:

Those old hips shake your pleated skirt today, aunty.
You are no church girl. All day you jamming
Behind big truck, laughing, bottom rolling for so,
Feet chipping, skirt swaying as if for its blasted self. (22)

The speaker repeats the lines, “You are no church girl,” illustrating how her aunt experiences carnal delight by engaging in forbidden acts of pleasure. Commenting on the nexus between Black female sexuality and empowerment, Myriam Chancy notes that, “our bodies have been the source of our commodification in art, the site of physical and sexual abuse under slavery and neocolonial “domestic schemes,” it stands to reason that it would be through the body that we might regain a palpable sense of our own identities” (123). In Booker’s poem, the speaker illustrates how women’s bodies provide avenues of liberation from colonial mores of female propriety.

In the poem “Prayer,” corporeal resistance against colonial violence is enacted through the womb of the Black woman “whose exploited sexuality fueled the economies of slavery and colonialism through forced reproduction and labour” (Hobson 101).The speaker renounces the maternal role ascribed to women, using her body for carnal pleasure. She “danced through life,” “deaf” to familial and sociocultural constraints that confine women to motherhood, liberatingherself from colonial legacies of forced reproduction.

Throughout her collection, Booker illustrates how anticolonial resistance can be both real and imagined. In “Sin Visits Me,” bodily resistance is enacted through erotic fantasies, invoking unbridled acts of carnal delight. Under the influence of moonshine, the speaker dialogues with a female specter, reminiscent of the La Diablesse, a shape-shifting she-devil who seduces her admirers. The speaker describes the dead woman as a “sensual woman” who indulges in the pleasures of the flesh: “You chew chilies raw, laugh, and spit the seeds, then tell me of the joys/ of sitting on a big stone under Concord waterfall/ watching the near naked boys leap off moss-green cliff” (55). In a symbolic act of anticolonial resistance, the dead woman “chews” the bitter chili peppers of pain synonymous with Black womanhood and “spits” out the seeds of oppression. Booker’s Pepper Seed enacts the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds, deeply rooted in gender norms and power dynamics. Booker’s female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence inflicted on the Black female body. Yet, Booker’s collection offers possibilities for resistance against colonial legacies of violence through corporeal acts of rebellion. Booker’s poetry also depicts women who break free from colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s heroines create themselves anew, deploying their erotic power to disrupt social and cultural norms that restrict their freedom. Through her poetic portraits and narratives, Booker imagines alternative futures for women—far away from masculinist monolithic definitions that impose constraints on women’s bodies—and envisions a new generation of women who break the cycle of violence inscribed on Black female bodies.

Works Cited

Booker, Malika. Pepper Seed. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013.

Chancy, Myriam J.A. Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Hobson, Janell. “The “Batty” Politic: Towards an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 18(4), 87-105.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider. California: Crossing Press, 1984.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Dr. Keisha Allan is an Assistant Professor at Baruch College. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the department of English at the University of Maryland and her broad area of interest is twentieth-century Caribbean literature. Within this field, she examines Caribbean literature by women writers who critique social and political inequities in their societies. She examines how selected female authors from the Caribbean create fictional worlds that have the effect of subverting patriarchal perspectives and paradigms in their postcolonial societies. She interrogates society and artistic responsibility, with women presented as creatively engaged in revolutionary activities aimed at reshaping ideas and perspectives in the national imaginary.

By dawn lonsinger, PhD


In Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne, we encounter the irreducible inextricability of point-blank pain and layered love, language threaded on the filament of lines so perfectly that it sings and stings. The poems therein are a warning and a wish, a reckoning and reclamation, ode and erasure. It is a boldly constructed collection about the heartbreaks and body-breaks of life in late-stage capitalism, amid grind culture, war, the endless wake of white supremacy, patriarchy, malady, the everyday losses and consonant sadness, etc., but also about the sharp-yet-sating ache of desire, kinship, herbaria, family, art, and relationships. The gutting and gathering power of the poems often emerges from their ability to hold these many realities at once, showing us how contrasting spheres of being intersect our lives and bodies. Queen indicts our cultural and individual “avoiding / evidence of suffering at all costs” yet also keens for an expansiveness within which she could “stop the false / fight for my humanity, en masse, [is] allowed to share / a history of anything but suffering” (2, 14). Anodyne is full of what I’d like to call a Poetics of Exhaustion and a Poetics of Relationality, wherein the poet is tired of (and tired out by) the unrelenting violence and strains of this, our, world – “what severs / the head of connection in the time of least” – and its attendant losses. Nonetheless, she seeks out cracks in what is through which another way of imagining ourselves and our relationship to each other might emerge (25). It’s an aria of “ands” and caesura, tracing the intractable distances and intimacies of now. These are vibrant-yet-harrowing poems full of touch and terror, abduction and desire, beauty and domination, entrapment and escape.

We enter into a landscape replete with “common miracles” but also “endless / sentences about oppression,” and throughout, we learn how inextricable these are from each other, often contained in the same form or instance as in “chrysanthemums the rust of blood” (Queen 71, 76, 49). It is, in part, these entanglements of beauty and harm that is exhausting to navigate. These poems glow with a devotion to the particularity of lived experience, but this is amplified and unsettled by the elegiac – a brother lost to murder, a mother declining from dementia, the depression and suicidal ideation of a son “whose brilliance / isn’t understood yet,” who wonders “Why can’t I be myself in this world” (68, 3). In these poems, we encounter the human as the perimeter between what roils inside and what roils outside. One’s body is a kind of em dash, mote, hatchet, net, and, when lucky, a site of pleasure, reprieve, and connection. Queen explores the body as a site of contention for all the forces and dogmata of the world, and also as a source of irreverence and imagination, the “body ever in revolt, a red centimeter of a mouth / asking what else” (6).

We learn early in the book that the speaker is tired, but cannot sleep; as we move through the layers of experience and accreting chasms between self and outcome in subsequent poems, that tiredness grows colossal and endless, the speaker ever-calibrated to “what might exhaust this [her] brittle form” (68). Loss haunts and contemporary life threatens, and restlessness ensues and ensues. It’s literal restlessness and figurative restlessness – the restlessness of the unresolved, the revenant, the used, the misused, the used up, the vulnerable.  In a formally startling poem, “Synesthesia,” parentheses mirror the wounds of loss and make space for the ghost of the murdered brother to speak in a language we do not understand but can hear/see:

First, I was twenty-five with no sleep     (                     )

&         my body said   feel this                        And I didn’t

want to            (           )  then              It turned into a constant &      (     )

burned to be felt                      I couldn’t harden

away from it                 couldn’t ease                     (                  )

or sleep            or not-feel        my way away      because (                   )

It was myself & (Queen 30)

The self is riven with sorrow, not distinguishable from what injures it. The space between lines and the many caesuras within the lines, like the faults in logic or sense-making, serve to replicate how grief perforates and how navigating that loss in language might allow for a painful but paradoxically satisfying kind of coherence. Inherent in the wish to sleep, is the wish to reconcile with and transform one’s helplessness by dreaming of alternative endings, wherein the speaker “sang hush to a wounded man // (          ) // (          ) // gunshots, my brother                       (          )            and he lived” (31).

Likewise, in the later poem, “NJ Transit Passenger Ode,” the speaker confesses, “I want to sleep at night” perchance to dream “my family all lived // in the same place / long enough to grow daffodils & safe babies” (66). The final poem of the collection – an anaphoric litany of all the places and ways that the speaker has, in fact, slept – promises to offer some resolve or relief from the earlier disquiet, but the sleep, too, is punctuated by the harsh details of an exacting world – “a steel bunk in Illinois winter next to military / strangers,” “with a view of an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds & drug trash,” “in a bathtub dispossessed,” “with love & treated myself to unkindness,” [listening to] “nameless strays killing what they eat,” “with a man who hated himself,” wrapped “in a crochet blanket & / sorrow,” “in senescent lake muck,” “in my car on the side of Fountain Street at dawn,” “in a world I forgot to love sometimes,” “& more than once I didn’t close my eyes” (81-83). Queen is not interested in suggesting we have reached resolution or solace. There is, however, amid the long lines of troubled sleep, an instance of grace: “I slept inside a song with a Blacker voice than mine which meant I slept good” […] “I slept in a place of brilliant bones & the future of Blackness / I slept in a system outside of every law but one […] I slept in a simple way / I slept in a place just for us / I slept where I could see it” (82-83). Queen ends not on a simplistic note of hope, but on the edge of everything that currently is, where she can glimpse and presage an alternative world where Blackness has its own music and space.

* * *

In calling this book Anodyne, Queen is asking us to think about what might allay or soothe the many pains of contemporary life, which are often lessened or amplified according to the body you inhabit, the betrayals that come from the inside (as with chronic pain), and those that come from the outside (as with the supremacist ideologies and actions that compel Black Americans to “only ask     that you not kill us”) (25). Thanks to Queen’s deft experimentation with and handling of form and recurring motifs, we glimpse the ways these inside and outside betrayals have something to do with each other.

The word “anodyne” also brings to mind all the analgesic forms people use to render painful experiences less so by dulling their senses, as in Kendrick Lamar’s “twilight” used as epigraph; think nightshade, opium, camphor, Vicodin, saffron, wine, consumerism, etc. These poems honor that desire for the absence of pain, but also suggest that a heightening of ones senses, “a spirit of play” (as broadcast in the Anne Carson epigraph), attention, care, and deep engagement might offer a brighter balm, an antidote. So, this book woefully admits the need for constant painkillers and the longing for the anodyne to end anodynes (to be free from “made-up valor or resilience”), but also offers itself up as anodyne (1). To read these poems is to feel as if you have entered the many abysses of modern life and the ways histories of harm enter the body and home and mouth, but also as if you have been offered a amulet of protection in Queen’s conjuring attention and susurrant words, sung “sharp as blades” (2). We are given not just “repositories of beauty,” but the Ariadne-like string that might help to lead us out of the labyrinths of loss and cultural misappropriations, wherein we find that just beyond simple loveliness is the “untidy, untended, loveliness of the forsaken, / of dirt-studded & mold-streaked / treasures that no longer belong to anyone / alive, overrunning” (1). Despite having felt the pain of being made “smooth from pain,” one’s “interior [made] to hold the ruin,” the speaker of these poems is still on the lookout for “a good atonement” and “how to live exuberant with settle,” “stretch[ing her] insides / across pages until [her] pain is upside down” (Queen 51, 20, 17, 13).

* * *

Like the lemon added “to the cool / water in a faceted glass” from the poem, “Declination,” about desire and its acquittals, Queen’s writing is sharply, vividly, refreshingly investigative, arriving in versatile multifaceted forms with unconventional cadences. It pushes language to its limits in order to articulate the intimate specifics of daily defense against onslaught, and how one does this without losing one’s openness to intimacy (43). Queen clearly loves language – its heft and sound, texture and malleability – but also wants us to remember that language is limited and fails us all the time – “the violence of language in every space / I enter & think I am losing everything but my mind” (79). Thus, Queen goes to extreme measures to say the unsayable, using potent imagery, the page as a field of experimentation, surprising syntax, the invention of words, juxtaposition, etc. These poems go to the edges of language, emotion, experience, and artistic tactics, connecting unlike things to get closer to that third interstitial entity. Her poetic techniques multiply the meaning of words to go beyond the literal, giving readers an impression of an idea or feeling, an experience one can’t quite put into words but knows is real. There’s a figurative radiance here, sun-like in that it’s at moments life-giving and illuminating, and, at others, hard to look at, full of risk.

Narrative is one of the ways we catalogue or think of or experience our lives. But it is not the only way. Queen’s poems invite us to ask hard questions about how our experience of the world is mediated or transmitted. Do you experience your body as a part of a story? Do you understand “that molten underground we swim the surface of” (5)? Being so brave you almost die? A brother turned into dust? “How to use the word love, mean it” (20)? This is poetry that rearranges how you make contact with the world, is not a lesson or bit of wisdom, but something much more expansive and heterodox.

In this collection, compression and elision create an intensity that does not abbreviate; rather, it moves in the direction of complexity and multiplicity, toward not letting meaning or conclusion or dichotomizing clamp down, kill for the sake of understanding or satisfaction or a clean arc. In this way, it is foundationally deconstructive. While there are narrative threads in these poems, Queen’s poems are discernibly not tethered to narrative. Rather the lyrical provocations and pleasures of these poems are linguistic, imagistic, musical, philosophical, emotional, intellectual, formal, visceral, metaphysical, thematic, contrarian, figurative, and textural. They are sonically gorgeous and unrelenting, “boom[ing] with basalt,” and riveted with resonant insoluble questions like “Can I collect my fragments, / fragile now in the gentleness” (5, 37)? Her poems are plangent and you feel in the many forms – erasure, eclogue, grid, sestina, ode – and the tide-like lines an unruly roving attention, within which language is a depot for discovery and deliverance.

* * *

While the world keeps apprehending the speaker, across poems, through diminishing culturally constructed (but materially consequential) lenses – as woman, as Black, as professor, as ill, etc. – the personae poems in the collection try to disabuse us of this gisting error. Queen reminds us, rather, that she is only “disguised as an I (no direction),” is not a singular easily-diminishable category or self, but is of “disarray,” “flux,” made up of “opposites [that would like to be] allowed to oppose in peace” (9, 80). The personae poems reject essentializing or lessening how multiform and capacious the self, with its miraculous “starlit” and “drunk off sea liquor” origins … “our scatter / Expansion—openness, inexact song” (9, 26). They also call out all the ways that one – especially if relegated by a hierarchical culture to the margins – is abridged by and beholden to a “subaltern superstructure” and its “apparent psychological systems,” where whole populations are socially, politically, psychically, and geographically excluded and oppressed, strung out and along by “merchant discipline,” woefully “used up by the wrong power” (Queen 9-10). The personae poems remind us that we arrived differently than where and what we now find ourselves, not yet divisible and decided upon, but “via unpredictable route / via safer lacuna” to “shell the day-cold / bone-filled, language-less,” full of “varied intensity” (54). Thus the perpetual paradox and tension of living now, when “it feels strange to smile in a fascist era—grief / dammed up, ancient energy held back” (55). We are reminded we are made of greater wider various stuff, how we are drawn toward possibility, even as, when Queen writes in “Epilogue for Personae”:

who can feel the possible
in their bodies & not break
toward it—  (55)

The brilliance of the line break on “break” is that it suggests there is heartbreak and body ache when we come up against all that dilutes or delimits our possibility, but that if we get past that interruption we might “break toward” a further terrain of leeway and imagining.

There’s rage but it’s quiet; there’s hope, but it’s quiet. What’s not quiet is the intensity of interrogating a too common complicity, and the search for seams at the margin of harm that might be opened up into other worlds or possibilities. She calls the mercantile world and individuals out for what they have done to beauty, “trash[ing it], see[ing it] as glut, usable” (56). And in “Antediluvian,” there is a necessary inquisition of white people and their attendant gods:

Where were you when the truth disappeared or
when the truth battered us […]  Where
were you when strongmen told us to die &
blasted us into nothing.    Were you downtown
to witness the smooth mirage    stagnate in sky-
scraper shade & neon glower  (24)

* * *

But there are other everyday anodynes, which Queen underscores. Throughout the collection, nature, food, and animals are tranquilizing counterforces to cultural degradations. “Breezes peel blush and white petals from her magnolia, / lacing unruly roots in the spring grass,” seasons stretch out of shape amid “the opulence of acres,” the world continuing to make and unmake itself (23). And food is everywhere – “poblano soup & spicy / slaw on bootleg street tacos,” “fresh peaches / simmering in syrup,” “a tuna melt / cut in half,” “vegetarian gumbo,” “snapper & trout blackened on the spit” – climaxing with the grandmother’s cut potato, an old-world magic, used to cauterize injured skin: “Repeat / until it looks like nothing ever happened” (Queen 76, 78, 36, 65). Animals arrive as insight that is immune to rational understanding – “disappearing pattern— / Quarrel of sparrows // Branches beam[ing] full green” – with images that hit us at some subterranean and arterial level (71). But nature – with its ongoing aria of movement and transmutation – is also frequently formally elegiac, full of “falling star[s],” “erosion,” and “cracked bone [stitch]ing itself a whitened scar / over and over” (71, 5). But, for Queen, this natural kind of recursive dissolution or eventual death is what makes the body and mind electrically alive and present to its own inimitable being, like her own “animal glow—sacred rot” (20).

Anodyne mines the apocalypses that have long been underway, and all that might sate or save us amid them, like “resurrect[ing] the excised archive of […] relatives,” acknowledging that merely managing the aftershocks is not sustainable (20). Queen’s writing is so powerfully her own that it reminds us that we cannot replace a poem with our interpretations of it anymore than we can or should do that to others. She unseams the unseeming to figure out how to go on living. Her words make a circle around her coven. At their best, great poems give us new ways of saying, thus new ways of seeing, which ultimately suggest new ways of being. Audre Lorde wrote “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Queen’s Anodyne is one such bridge, a gift from the intersections of everything. We are reminded that “no matter / Sound makes space in the throat”; to peril language is to open oneself to sustenance (68). Therein, we are fortified by the consonance and precision of the inconclusive and multivalent:

Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies
Looped into every surface, looped
Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter  (Queen 28)

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm, and recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, the Utah Prize in Prose and Poetry, the Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Prize. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. lonsinger holds a BA in studio art and English as well as an MA in literature from Bucknell University, an MFA in poetry from Cornell University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. She recently finished a creative nonfiction book that tries to navigate the consanguinity and dissonance between erotics and robotics in a Tindering world, and is now working on a book of poems, The Long and Terrible Taming, which explores taming and wildness in all its manifestations. She is an Associate Professor at Muhlenberg College.

&By Cherise A. Pollard, PhD

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2020) spans four highly productive decades and features work from Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), Fast Animal (2012), One Turn Round the Sun (2017) and new poems from the manuscript, With No Hat (2020). While the text is marked by loss — the pandemic, the poet’s retirement, his parents’ recent transitions in 2019 and 2020, the speaker’s ruminations about aging and death’s eventuality, America’s dance with late-capitalist demise and the looming collapse of democracy — there’s an abundance of humor, the delights of imagination, the beauty of play, the glory of sports, the sweet promise of Black boy joy, the marvel of a woman’s legs, and the wonders of the kiss.

Seibles’ distinct perspective, the focus of his creative attention, as well as his intention to upset the status quo necessarily means that his work cannot be easily categorized on the levels of content, form, or language. Voodoo Libretto offers its readers formal diversity. There are free verse poems as well as ballads and villanelles. There are short lyric poems and long narrative poems with gorgeous turns and abstract, reflective passages. Language is dynamic in Voodoo Libretto; it is alive in the surprising ways that the poet employs figurative language and rhyme, musicality and word play, invention and highly focused description. In the preface, “Open Letter II,” Seibles makes a strong argument for an attention to craft that disrupts the status quo: “For me, poetry is the place where — if I am not intimidated — I can say the most dangerous, most tender, most mysterious things I know, where I may find the same in the work of other poets … Such crucial speech sustains my hunger to see more than the way it is — more than the way it’s been. I’m talking pure voice, the untamed voice, the voice with no rider, no bit in its mouth” (xxvi-xxvii). On the page, this desire manifests through the way that Seibles plays with language through his invention of new words and his use of vernacular expression.

Of course, themes shift, emerge and return, there are preoccupations that the poet continues to ask and answer. There is being human, and being a human that is Black, and being a human that is Black and male, and being a human that is Black and male who comes of age during the sixties with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and integration shifting the foundation of one’s life. Voodoo Libretto features the work of a poet who has been keenly aware of his cultural, historical, political and social contexts. Born in 1955, the year after the crucial Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a decision that made integration the law of the land, as well as the year a young Black teenager, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, Seibles grows up during the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia. He came of age in the sixties, during a time of cultural upheaval that includes the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968),  and Robert F. Kennedy (1968). In the late sixties, he witnessed cultural change brought forward by the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Roe V. Wade (1973), as well as youth-driven social movements that pushed for this legislation: Black Power Movement, anti-Vietnam War Protests, Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

A child of the sixties, Seibles is truly oppositional to conservative American politics, and is deeply skeptical of organized religion. His work critiques capitalism, American militarism, political corruption, The Cold War, Reaganism, The Bushes (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), Desert Storm and the perpetual War on Terrorism that followed 9/11. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, readers will notice a sharpening political critique — at first it may simply be a quick mention of republicans in the poem “The Apple Cake” (Seibles 88), or a slight reference to white people who may not be as trustworthy as one imagines in “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131),  but then one notes a shift in later work to extensive critiques of conservative politics that develops into an outright damnation of Trumpism and MAGA politics as in “MAGA Hat III Strategy ” (283).  In “Not Nearly Enough” (285). the speaker asks a rather provocative question: “Tell me, how did we let these fuckheads run the world / off the road?!” (lines 34-35). In a post-January 6th 2022 society, it’s not clear that anyone has an answer that makes logical sense, but Seibles’ work asks the necessary questions.

Voodoo Libretto charts the transformation of a poet who becomes more comfortable with the fact that he must say what needs to be said to wake up America. Seibles explores the ways in which these historical events, cultural shifts, and politics affect the way the poet sees himself and his world. It is also work that is shaped by a poet with a unique perspective who does not shy away from introspection and imagination. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, we see the direct impact that these historical movements had on young Seibles’ life. Lost childhood innocence is a strong theme in this collection. There are several poems such as “Trying for Fire” (Seibles 11), and “Terry Moore” (163), that focus on his childhood, particularly his experience of being one of three Black fourth grade boys who integrated an elementary school in Philadelphia. His relatively happy, sheltered childhood changes abruptly.  In “The Word 1964-1981” (11), the speaker visits the school, wonders about the Herculean task placed on a boy’s small shoulders:

In Philadelphia
I went back to the school
we integrated. The bunch of us
had no idea how big a deal it was —
our parents behind us saying
Be good now. Stay outta trouble.
But we were fourth-graders

and the teachers didn’t want us.
What could we do? (lines 1-9)

Integrating that school changed the community, and the little boys who grew to be men under the pressure of institutionalized racism. Often, we encounter grand integration narratives haloed by notions of heroism in the face of blatant racist actions. Here, we see a different version of that lived experience in the northeast, where institutionalized racism emerged, some might say, in a more subtle dynamic. Seibles gives us no clear-cut battles, but shows us something different in his depiction of Black boys who “have no idea how big a deal it was” (line 4) who are forced to go to a school where “the teachers didn’t want us” (line 9). The psychological, cultural and social impact of these actions was not anticipated. Those boys and their families were not prepared for the trauma either they or their community would endure. His visit to the old school grounds is bittersweet. He is reminded of some joyful memories of playing sports that seems to balance the trauma. There seems to be hope, or at least distraction from pain: “but the field is still there” (line 21). But the trauma is not mediated for long. The poem closes with “On some / of the side doors you can / still find the word Nigger” (lines 24-26) The trace of racism remains in the structure of the building, in the institution’s landscape.

In “The Hilt, Second Session” (Seibles 209) the speaker’s imagination, spurred by childhood memories, returns to the playground.  This long poem moves back and forth across the page, like “The see-saw, I remember — ” (209). The speaker revisits a memory of playing with his brother behind their church, wearing his “fake tie clipped to / my stiff, white shirt” (209). This scene rouses the speaker’s anxieties. He is not sure who he is anymore, or what he has become:

Having ushered you into the who-knows-what that waited in the world,
having seen your face before that first hard glint hacked your eyes,

 when they look at you now, do your parents find anything familiar? (209)

Here, the speaker understands that the experiences that he has encountered have forged him into a man who seems to be so different from his boyhood self. At this point in his life, some thirty years after the publication of Body Moves (Seibles 1988), the speaker tries to take some measure of himself. Who is he, if he is not recognizable to himself, or those who knew him, raised him? Reeling in self-doubt, the speaker seems unable to gather himself, to articulate the meaning of his life.  He sees himself, accomplishing things, participating in the world, but feels distanced:

a sandwich
starting the car
calling somebody
calling back —
bizzy. (210)

Throughout the collection, in the later books, one notices that Seibles invents and employs the word “bizzy” to highlight the ways that the Protestant work ethic that fuels American capitalism stands diametrically opposed to any meaningful existence. He realizes that he has gone through the motions, in all of the busy-ness of daily life, he is traumatized: “the way you walk — some sign / of a lifelong shove: your mind / a shy animal, force-fed, skinned” (Seibles 210) As if in a daze, the speaker thinks,

The self is real, right? — this who-you-are, this
soft-wheel: these chronic recollections –

Does it feel like a trick? This thing  

you’ve become: some dream re-running
in your veins, what you believe, (210)

In the section that follows, we realize that he is experiencing a trauma in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland.

In the video

before the
police came
Tamir Rice
was a kid

playing a –
lone in a
park near
the gazebo. (211)

In the context of Seibles’ body of work, one of the themes of which is childhood nostalgia and the reckoning of masculinity, this section of the poem resonates — here is a Black man taking stock not only of his boyhood and lost innocence, but grieving for a boy who loses much more than innocence. He remembers, “I used to do that. / I’d have my football with me, a water gun in my pocket, / maybe some Sugar Babies” (211).  The speaker wonders:

do you
think that
boy had
any idea

his story
was al-
written?” (211).

The speaker’s reflection on Tamir Rice’s death echoes his own trauma in “The Word 1964 -1981” (Seibles 11) when he says that he and his friends “had no idea what a big deal it was” (line 4) when they integrated their elementary school. There is a sweetness in his boyhood memories, playing on the playground, playing with Legos in the basement, watching cartoons that does not match the terror that lurks on the margins of his life — a terror that visited Tamir Rice on the playground.

In Voodoo Libretto, play is kaleidoscopic. There are so many ways that Seibles indulges in serious play — child’s play, sports, word play, imagination, dreamtime and flirtation. For Seibles, play pushes the boundaries of our expectations, challenges us to reconsider our beliefs. From self-proclaimed class clown to adult trickster, Seibles’ imagination invites the reader into investigative distraction. In several poems, playing football and basketball is a way for the speaker to connect with his buddies, and a pathway to masculinity. In “Nothing But Football” (Seibles 22), the speaker remembers the joy, bordering on religious ecstasy, that playing football with his friends brought into his youth:

trying to stop us. They couldn’t stop us:
you stutter-dipped. I snake-slipped, anything
to spin-shimmy away clean as light,
slick as sweat, holy thieves in a forest of moving trees (lines 16-19).

The language is alive here with the slippery consonance of “s.” The hyphenated words give us the sense of collision on the field — mimics play action.

It is also important to note the crucial aspect of fantasy and escapism that play brings into the boys’ lives. In the shadow of racism, and their parents’ watchful eye, play gives the speaker and his friends a way to be. This play is transformative, it opens up possibilities for their future — for the men they will become. Later, in “Trying for Fire” (31), Seibles admits that his NFL dreams did not come true, “I never did play pro-football, / never got to do my mad-horse, / mountain goat, happy-wolf dance / for the blaring fans at the Astrodome,” (32), but the dream makes real world survival possible; it gives the speaker and his boys something to be hopeful for beyond the rules and restrictions of their daily lives.

Ever the inventive poet, the form of the villanelle becomes a playground for Seibles. Working within its constraints, he plays with rhyme and meter in ways that lead to surprises for the reader. Several pop culture references such as Oprah, CNN, Beatles lyrics, Wonder Bread, Sponge Bob, Yoda, zombies, and the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” are either the focus or make special appearances in some of his villanelles. In “Extra Bright Blues Villanelle” (Seibles 289), the speaker humorously reflects on the idea that others might not consider him to be very smart; it is ironic because the entire poem stays true to the villanelle form and references Dylan Thomas’ classic work, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The combination of the literary and popular cultural references as well as the poet’s experimentation with variations and imaginative stretches that facilitate the rhyme scheme result in a villanelle that demonstrates the speaker’s brilliance. The repeated lines are found in the first stanza:

Sometimes I guess I don’t seem extra bright  (A)
Nobody tol’ me not to stand behind that horse (B)
Always thought the moon had its own light. (A) (lines 1-3)

In a villanelle, the first and third lines repeat as the end lines of each of the five tercets and are the couplet at the end of the last quatrain of the poem. Seibles uses slant rhyme for the A and B rhymes: for the A rhyme, “bright,” he brings in “light,” “fight,“ ”night,” “sight,” and the slant rhyme “life.” For the B rhyme, “horse,” he substitutes “remorse,” “force,” “of course,” and “off course,” as well as slant rhymes: “for,” “door,” and “more.” The speaker’s riffing on various words and their meanings makes the poem humorous: “Really don’ know if I’ll ever get right / Been charting the stars like a Martian off course. / Sometimes they don’t think that I’m extra bright” (lines 16-18). The space theme shifts into the speaker thinking of himself as a lost Martian. By the end of the poem, the speaker binds all of the logical threads together:

You ride with no hands when you ride with no bike
Where’s Yoda at  when you’re needin the Force

Sometimes I bet I don’t seem extra bright
But, I’m pretty damn sure the moon had its own light” (lines 22-26).

Here, the speaker brings Star Wars references into his argument — with “Yoda” and “the Force”. These references ground the poem in popular culture, in effect, reinvigorating the form for contemporary audiences. These often delightful substitutions also highlight the limitations of form — that in order to stay within its bounds, Seibles must stretch the argument conceptually.

Seibles tackles racial and political issues with humor, too. In “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131), Tooter Turtle tells Mister Wizard that he wants “to be black in America” (131). Mr. Wizard cautions against this desire, tells Tooter,

But, Tutah, look: the republicans are on a rampage,
white people, in general, seem like dangerous playmates
and the black community is riddled with  with
self-inflicted wounds! (131)

But, Tooter is drawn in by Black culture. He believes that circumstances must be improving. He says, “Well, gee, Mister Wizard, times have changed. / It might be a little rough, but I’ll be down / with the brothaz — they’ll show me the ropes” (131). Tootah wants to be Black because: “Black people are bold and resilient” (131). Well, the incredulous Mr. Wizard grants Tooter’s wish with this spell:

Two parts laugh and three parts pain
Cutting lash and hard-won pain

Thumpin bass and rumble drums
Dr. King and drive-by guns

Skin of dark and spark of eye
Sade’s grace and Pippin’s glide

Purple Heart and might of back
Time for Tutor, to be BLACK! (131-132)

After ten minutes of being Black man in America, the transformed Tooter Turtle yells, “HELP, MISTER WIZARD!!!” (132). This poem is funny because it reveals the disconnect between the romance of blackness — the culture, music, the narrative of survival against the odds — verses the reality of oppression and violence. It is one thing to see it as an outsider, it is quite another to experience the crushing effects of institutional racism.

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto is a seminal text. In it, we see the power of Black interiority — the matter of Black lives — clearly. Seibles’ work chronicles the intricacies of being and becoming a Black man in the late twentieth century and the ways that masculinity shifts as the poet’s life circumstances change. One could easily say that Seibles’ influence is seen throughout contemporary African American poetry — the humor, the risk taking, the performance, the interiority — have opened up space for early twenty-first century poets to experiment in their work. Voodoo Libretto is an important text for scholars of contemporary American poetry who seek a unique perspective on craft, word play, invention, reflections on being, representations of Black boyhood and masculinity, the psychological impact of racism and integration, as well as American cultural politics and popular culture. Seibles’ voice adds an important resonance to the chorus of African American poets speaking to the diversity of Black experience.

Works Cited

Seibles, Tim. Voodoo Libretto: New &Selected Poems. Etruscan Press, 2020.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

cap photo 071622Cherise A. Pollard, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at West Chester University of PA. where she teaches African American Literature, Creative Writing and  Composition/Rhetoric.  She earned her PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. A 2012 NEH Fellow who participated in the Summer Institute in Contemporary African American Literature, Pollard has published several articles on contemporary black women poets and novelists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sapphire, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton.  A scholar who focuses on Popular Culture, African American Popular Fiction, the African American Women’s Historical Novel, and African American Poetry, her critical essays have appeared in journals and edited anthologies including Theorizing Ethnicity and Nationality in the Chick Lit Genre (edited by Erin Hurt), Black Female Sexualities (edited by Joanne Braxton and Trimiko Melancon) and Forecast. She has also published Reader’s Guides for two of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novels, Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter.


By Laura Vrana, PhD


Over the recent holidays, I found myself struck by a poet-scholar’s query on what many of us — in a tone suffused with affection and/or disdainful disregard — dub “Poetry twitter.” While compiling a list of forms invented by Black poets, she found herself centering products of male writers, so she was seeking more invented by women. Enthusiastic replies poured in, citing (among others): Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “gigan,” Tara Betts’s “4-1-1,” Allison’s Joseph’s “sweetelle,” Nicole Sealey’s “obverse,” and Ashley Lumpkin’s “disciple.” Too, poets and scholars used this thread to engage generatively about how to define an invented form, suggesting Claudia Rankine’s “American lyric,” or Patricia Smith’s “triple sestina,” or works “undoing traditional forms” like Tiana Clark’s “broken sestinas,” could qualify. I wondered: what, and who, do those of us who research and teach Black poetics include and foreground when considering innovation?

This query was particularly on my mind since I was about to begin writing a piece on Amanda Johnston, so I was struck when Johnston herself chimed in on this very back-and-forth unobtrusively mentioning her “genesis”. She describes the form as “comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems create a sixth prose poem, and italicized words create the final seventh poem when read independently as a visible erasure.” Johnston’s tone, putting herself forth for consideration yet doing so quietly and briefly, encapsulates the simultaneous humility and well-warranted braggadocio with which Black women poets today innovatively “make poetic culture in their own images” (Leonard 27). I mean “braggadocio” not as a critique. Instead, I hope it and this piece will celebrate Johnston, even as I suggest that innovative precursors paved the way for her triumphs. Johnston recognizes this lineage; readers should also situate her work against this backdrop to fully understand her contributions to contemporary African American poetics.

One of Johnston’s most vital ancestors came up recurrently in that thread: Gwendolyn Brooks. One scholar posited that Brooks’s “sonnet-ballad” and “anniad” are invented forms; others highlighted that Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” could never have emerged without Brooks. In these meditations, I want to argue the same of Johnston: a boldly innovative versifier herself whose works come into sharper relief when seen as partially descended from Brooks.

Like Brooks, Johnston is equally adept on page and stage. She has won honors for slam and performance work in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and has published in journals like Callaloo and Poetry, along with two chapbooks (Guap and Lock and Key) and her full-length collection Another Way To Say Enter. Many “slammers” like Johnston engage in textual innovation encouraged in part by their training in MFA programs: Johnston earned her degree at the University of Southern Maine. Yet these innovations are equally indebted to Brooks’s model of poetic invention. In addition, she and Brooks share extraordinary accomplishments as poets and tireless advocates for their peers. Johnston devotes herself to opening doors for Black authors: she has served as Board President of Cave Canem, co-founded the reading series / social media campaign #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and founded Torch Literary Arts to promote Black women’s writing. Through these labors, Johnston, like her foremother, links poetry to social change.

More should be said about Johnston’s labors on behalf of Black writers as well as about her performance work. But I will focus here on her written texts, particularly how they derive inspiration from Brooks in treating centrally the variegated subject of Black motherhood. Countless Black poets have penned riffs on their foremother generally and especially on her works on this topic (including Robin Coste Lewis’s “the mothers”). However, Johnston’s entire oeuvre centers motherhood in modes topically and formally inspired by Brooks’s “the mother” (1945), locating her as a modern poet of Black motherhood. Johnston’s body of work addresses how the experience of shepherding a young life into and through a world that subjects Black children to additional forms of precarity yields internal conflict and heightened raging at social (in)justices.

Her speaker(s) return(s) repeatedly to dwelling on her/their mother(s). The ars poetica “With Apologies to the Poem” from Lock & Key, for instance, apostrophizes her verse with sardonic audacity a lá Brooks (or her foremother domestic poet extraordinaire Lucille Clifton). It opens: “you complicated flutter of sound / broken and bent meaning / all the best,” then continues in ironically self-aggrandizing self-effacement: “I can’t // connect the sky or birds / to my mother // I tried // as you did” (8). These lines via paralipsis do connect “sky” and “birds” to the speaker’s “mother,” insinuating that the poet-speaker finds this character, and, I argue, this theme meaningfully unavoidable.

On top of this returning to one’s own mother, Johnston’s full-length Another Way to Say Enter reflects a pervasive preoccupation with the speaker(s) as mother. Numerous poems overtly address being a mother, from the haunting narrative in “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted,” to “What We Dare Not Say” positing that “unconditional / motherhood / could be driving / your young into the sea” (27). Even in poems not specifically addressing motherhood, images like describing the domestic task of peeling potatoes through a simile equating the vegetables to “a newborn baby’s head” (23) raise the specter of this role.

I will unpack just two of these motherhood poems: “My Beloved Be Loved,” and “We Named You Mercy.” The former revises Lock & Key’s “My Beloveds” and appears in Enter with the epigraph “after Toni Morrison,” situating it as allusion to Morrison’s novel and embracing Morrison’s influence on her representions of Black motherhood. This poem stunningly lyricizes Sethe’s decision to perform matricide, inhabiting this mother’s consciousness and rendering her supposedly monstrous choice explicable in just six couplets. But its treatment of the so-called choices involved in Black motherhood also has roots in Brooks’s “the mother,” especially in how skillfully Johnston extracts maximal ironic effect and societal commentary from small-scale devices like punctuation and diction.

For instance, Johnston expands Brooks’s devotion to exploring exactly what the action of “love” — a verb she features prominently thrice in the anaphoric, haunting final stanza of “the mother” — means to Black mothers. To do so, she excludes the comma that should appear for clarity in her title between the vocative “My Beloved” and the imperative. This absence (like Brooks’s brilliant double-edged meanings of “in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”) provokes readers to recall that the former, often-saccharine endearment “Beloved,” is etymologically equivalent to the latter passive construction, “Be Loved” and that true maternal love involves action, not mere words. This immediate juxtaposition also highlights that white supremacy attempts to leave Black mothers powerless. But against such passivity, the piece centers verbs: “I grab,” “I know,” and “I will hand.” Thus, the poem emphasizes that Black motherhood always centers maternal care enacted in action — even if that mandates matricide or abortion, and even if others view these women warranting confinement in the poem’s “cage[s].”

Johnston’s “We Named You Mercy” extends this Brooks-inspired work of depicting mothering complexly via minute, deliberate formal details. “Mercy” is written “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and transports the “mother,” discussing abortion into our century. Despite the homage, a stark contrast differentiates Brooks’s piece from Johnston’s. Readers can infer that Brooks’s 1945 speaker likely obtained the abortion(s) before and without revealing her pregnancy/ies to others, to retain some modicum of control, perhaps thanks to physical or socioeconomic necessity that others might devalue. Johnston’s speaker instead induced abortion out of medical necessity; it remains unclear if only the child’s health or also the speaker’s was imperiled. In addition, this would-be mother inhabits different domestic circumstances and shares the experience with a partner: clearly, they both longed for and “love[d]” this unborn and so only chose abortion to express “cold mercy.” In light of these conditions, Johnston’s speaker’s emotions become even more double-edged than those of the speaker of Brooks’s poem. Both poets depict the children in ghostly terms, but Johnston tonally describes the child in beautiful natural imagery and alliteration, its “toes” “small petals,” its “closed eyes” “pulps of possibility” (5).

Juxtaposing her work with Brooks’s emphasizes that Black women may, regardless of circumstances, view abortion as hardly wholly their choice and as a result experience conflicting emotions. That Brooks’s speaker endures her loss in silence (except the outlet of this poem) becomes pronounced in her mournful final repetition of the singular first-person: “I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” While Johnston’s speaker has recourse to first-person plural, society nonetheless still veritably forbids speaking publicly about miscarriage, medically-induced abortion, and concomitant mourning; this remains somewhat true even if others beyond one’s domestic orbit knew of the pregnancy, as may be the case for Johnston’s speaker. Such taboos make it difficult for Black women to process guilt, shame, or self-doubt.

Yet “We Named You Mercy” violates these taboos in content and via aesthetics used. Johnston’s tools for representing her speaker’s sense of self-blame and culpability mirror Brooks’s: both center compound neologisms and pose unanswerable rhetorical questions. Johnston’s neologisms like Brooks’s create an overall indeterminate mood. Her first-person speaker declares: “I saw your face once and, yes, I did / kiss your cheeks and cry for your sweet not- / quite nose, not-quite lips” (5). Brooks’s “sucking-thumb” and “gobbling mother-eye” condense memorably the haunting experience of envisioning the unlived lives of (a) child(ren) aborted; Johnston’s adjectival “would-be” and “not-quite” and nouns “almost-children” and “half-wing” operate in parallel to summon the children into pseudo-embodied form. Like those ghostly phantasms, these linguistic neologisms might seem mere fabrications to those around the speaker; this liminality parallels how others denying her anguish validity might increase its keen ache. Johnston’s speaker also blames herself in the same form as does Brooks—unanswered interrogatives. “the mother” poses two haunting questions: “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” and “oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” Johnston expands this to five. Her speaker queries early on: “Would I get / another chance to see you if I held the knife? Cold, the sterile / the taker’s tools” (5). Near poem’s end, these questions accumulate in an accelerating, frenetic compilation: “Did you see me? The one with / empty arms stretching to embrace a / a [sic] silhouette of you? … / Or / did I make that up to keep you with / me a little longer? Did you stay until the no / I set upon your body untangled itself from sprigs of hair / and released you from the softness that tethered you to the / love in our cold mercy?” (5). In these rapid-fire queries, the speaker questions her complicity and sanity.

She also blames herself when she imbues speech with the capability to enact the abortion, describing it as a performative utterance, the “no / I set upon your body.” Thus the “mercy” extended feels tepidly “cold” indeed, directed at the unborn fetus and thereby denied the mother herself. It is fitting that Johnston also implicitly evokes Morrison here: her final image of “almost milk that did not swell, but was light as air” (16) recalls Sethe’s last days at Sweet Home, when her “swollen” breasts tortuously subject her to abuse by white enslavers and serve as material reminder of the child sent ahead whom she is desperate to follow. Johnston’s poetic invocation of milk-laden breasts are an absent presence, “airy,” yet real — like that “ghost” of possibility provoked by holding the lifeless child.

Too, Morrison often ruminates on “mercy” ideologically. Her A Mercy (2008) describes a mother begging a white man whom she judges likely to treat her daughter humanely to “take” her into enslavement, an attempt to protect her from their present master’s rapacious sexual abuse. To her, his accepting “was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (195). Farah Jasmine Griffin glosses this passage:

For the mother, the white man offers a gift of mercy, but is the mercy an act granted to the slave child by the man Vaark, or one granted to the white man to whom she is given? Is the act of mercy his ability to see Florens as a child and not only a piece of property over whom he has power? Or is it God’s mercy that the enslaved mother sees Vaark as a human being who might do right by her child and not as a monster who would cause her great harm? All she knows of white men would lead her to see them, to believe them, to be monstrous and evil. Yet, she sees this one as a human being, capable of kindness (28).

We might similarly ask in Johnston’s poem: who requests mercy — child, mother, father, poet? — of whom — child, mother, father, poet, readers? If even trading in humans can seem merciful depending on the relative situation, then (Johnston suggests) the choice to prioritize an unborn child’s quality of life over the mother’s well-being qualifies, too, as an act of mercy. The unborn “Mercy” embodies such grace to her mother — Griffin also asks: “Who can be more deserving of mercy than a child” (29) — even as this speaker serves the God-like role of extending her offspring mercy. The body of the poem only incorporates its key word “mercy” once: in the phrase “our cold mercy” that thus carries tragically key dual meaning. In context sans capitalization, it primarily describes the parents’ tortured decision. But read in light of the title, this phrase also evokes corporeally encountering the corpse of the child.

As parallels between these two poems evince, tortuous cycles persist for twenty-first-century Black mothers denied equal access to resources and exposed disproportionately to environmental and institutional hazards that make them and their children precariously vulnerable to negative health outcomes. “We Named You Mercy” is not only a potent document of personal trauma. It is also a rallying cry to rectify such circumstances, or at least to grant Black women platforms to express losses and to advocate implicitly for reproductive justice.

For the ability to hold the child, to write this verse, and to lyrically name the child does proffer something to this despondent speaker. That the name is “Mercy,” however, ultimately encapsulates the tragedy of the loss and the parents’ feelings. Johnston’s speaker experiences the “cold” comfort of sharing her burden with a partner and writing in a somewhat more accepting era. Yet it is undeniable that Brooks’s formal and thematic innovations, as well as her meditations on this under-discussed facet of Black motherhood made a pathway for Johnston to follow in her own work.

Before closing, it seems worth thinking about the choice on the part of this poet of motherhood to dub her created form the “genesis.” This audaciously positions her as fertile and god-like, authoring creation and the text representing it. This mirrors Nikki Giovanni’s tone in “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” when she declares: “I turned myself into myself and was jesus.” Both poets make Black women, so often societally abjected, godly. And rightly so, for Johnston’s invented genesis is itself a wildly creative hybrid form, demonstrating her formidable talents and demanding fresh reading strategies. She formats the five separate pieces, spread across multiple pages, as individual columns for independent reading. But they also together, read left-to-right and up-to-down across the columnar divisions, create a sixth longer poem. Finally, she invents a new sub-genre, the “visible erasure,” by asking readers to identify the seventh poem hidden in plain sight. Each columnar poem contains italicized phrases; assembling these left to right across the two-page spread comprises a seventh poem. But locating this invisible (yet hyper-visible) seventh poem asks readers to do the impossible: ignore the roman typeface text they have already read. Those words haunt this seventh piece interpretatively. Reading such work — let alone innovating such a form and writing effectively therein — certainly requires and displays capacious, generative poetic thinking.

Thus, Black women poets (Johnston among them) indubitably deserve treatment as creators of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American verse. That Twitter thread ultimately helped me continue dwelling on key broader matters in twenty-first-century African American poetics. Many assert that now that Patricia Smith won the Pulitzer and “slammers” (with other types of Black poets long held in abeyance by the academy and literary establishment) are being increasingly recognized, these poets now exercise full freedom. Although “gatekeepers” initially “pushed” slam and its “artists to the margins or jettisoned it” (Johnson and Blacksher 170), such institutions have begun to “recognize the literary merits of slam” and “bring slam and spoken word poets” into their legitimizing spaces (Johnson Killing 2). Keith Leonard recently asserted that twenty-first-century Black poets can wholly “create as they please” (29). Amanda Johnston’s career gives me (qualified) hope that he is correct, or soon could be. For she is to some degree recognized by the establishment on stage and page, and collectives like Cave Canem and the Affrilachian Poets help her reach broader audiences and craft her own platforms.

However, reading her as poet of Black motherhood and emphasizing her innovation remains in order. As Brooks’s brilliance is kept at the fore through the tireless labors propagated by the Furious Flower conferences and center, among other efforts, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring Johnston’s work before readers and position her as a modern daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks in these pages, where we with the writers tend and foster African American poetry.


Works Cited

Johnson, Javon. Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2017. Print.

— and Anthony Blacksher. “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death On the End of Slam (?).” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 169–79. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. New York: Norton, 2021. Print.

Johnston, Amanda. “About.” Amanda Johnston. Web. Accessed 1 Feb. 2022. Electronic.

Leonard, Keith. “New Black Aesthetics: Post-Civil Rights African American Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 17–30. Print.

@nadia870. “Hey poetry Twitter, what forms do you know of that were invented by Black women poets? As I begin forming a list of forms created by African American poets, I realize that none of the folks I’ve found so far are women. Please help!” Twitter, 29 Dec. 2021, 10:51 a.m.,

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Vrana headshot

Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and a proud alumna of Penn State, where she earned her Ph.D. in English. She researches 20th-century and contemporary Black poetics, and her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including MELUS, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and Obsidian and the edited collections Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, and two volumes of the Cambridge African American Literature in Transition series.


By Leslie Wingard, PhD


A.Van Jordan’s sardonic wordplay and technical prowess are often elided by critics and interviewers who focus solely on racial content and representation. Dorothy J. Wang argues in the preface of her book Thinking Its Presence (Stanford UP, 2015, XXII) that aesthetic forms are inseparable from social, political, and historical contexts in the writing and reception of all poetry. She questions the tendency of critics and academics alike to occlude the role of race in their discussions of the American poetic tradition and casts a harsh light on the double standard they apply in reading poems by poets who are racial minorities. Wang argues that critics should read minority poetry with the same attention to language and form that they bring to their analyses of writing by canonical white poets. Jordan’s close attention to form is consistent across his poetic production: two chapbooks, The Homesteader (Unicorn Press, 2013) and I Want To See My Skirt (Unicorn Press, 2021) and the collections, The Cineaste: Poems (Norton, 2013), Quantum Lyrics (Norton, 2007), M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A (Norton, 2005), and Rise (Tia Chucha, 2001). His commitment to the Western literary traditions in the forms of sestinas, sonnets, and the epic are met by far more modern and experimental techniques including his borrowing of cinematic narrative structures and persona poems in The Cineaste and M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. This is all the more reason it is necessary for teachers to focus on Jordan’s artful form when introducing his poetry in their classrooms.

A vivid example of Jordan’s formal abilities is in his most recent chapbook, I Want To See My Skirt (2021), which is the result of collaboration across history and geography between the poet and two additional artists. Jordan sees collaboration as a type of translation in that, “you have to figure out the language of the other artist as you bring your language together with theirs” (Unicorn Press, 2021). He sees the poems in I Want To See My Skirt as mainly sestinas that work like a tailor’s weave in a textile to describe the texts of contemporary Black multimedia artist Cauleen Smith and the late great Malian photographer Malick Sidibe (1935-2016). Sidibé’s photographs are stylized celebrations of Malian men and women in the era of independence from French colonial rule. Jordan, Smith, and Sidibe’s genres are so well-coordinated in I Want To See My Skirt that the intricacies of form are highlighted first and foremost in the chapbook: they “come together to make a new tapestry, something agile enough to hold the past and the present close to our hearts” (3). This chapbook about the growing pains of youth also includes repeated words like “body” and descriptions of a plethora of clothes that will attract students of different ages, genders, and backgrounds; in other words, they will relate to it via its form.

In “Roka’s Parents,” Jordan imagines the parents of a young girl translating for each other their distinct yet coterminous languages for loving their child. I argue that within the six stanzas of six unrhyming lines the repetition of the words “(not a) problem” and “skirt” are especially noteworthy. I Want To See My Skirt is also the title of a 2006 film by Cauleen Smith in which Smith and Jordan play Roka’s parents. Both the poem and film center on the four-year-old daughter. Her beauty, vulnerability, and character are depicted through photographs of her in a beloved skirt from the United States. She will learn that her own body and Black skin are representations made by others as much as by herself. The father in the poem tells the mother, “Don’t forget, I too understand/the ways of the flesh and the power of the body,” and the mother responds, “Let’s not make such a big deal over a skirt./When I put it on her, it was for fun: not a problem.” The father retorts, “Yes, my dear, trust me, it’s not a problem./But a father must show concern for his daughter’s body./There’s no reason why I should skirt/around this issue: men simply want knowledge/of what a woman has to offer beneath her clothes./Always. And this both of you must understand” (9). I would ask my undergraduate students to pay attention to how, exactly, Jordan builds momentum and understanding by utilizing just the two words that stand-out most to me: “(not a) problem” and “skirt.” Indeed, Roka’s budding knowledge about her race and gender is important in this poem, and I know that my students will see that, but Jordan helps us to realize that race, gender, and form are not opposed but instead working together in the piece. 

Juan Wynn, who studied A. Van Jordan’s work in an undergraduate class I taught at the College of Wooster, sees the form of Jordan’s work as a model for his own writing just as much if not more than its content. He recently reflected on reading the poetry. Wynn bumped into the renowned poet at a bookstore in his hometown Newark, New Jersey in 2016.  “I actually had a copy of Quantum Lyrics that I had been annotating,” Wynn said, “so it was incredible that he signed it after we talked about MFA programs and writing that day.”  Quantum Lyrics is ambitious in its perplexing investigation of the human condition via jazz and R&B motifs and actual encounters with racists, the stories of comic book heroes and Albert Einstein, and the minutiae of equations and other data in the world of physics. The volume is powerful because of its form: it moves back and forth between the language of music and the language of science to question which, if any, can penetrate to the core of peoples’ experiences. Because of its complex structure, Wynn “…often returns to Quantum Lyrics. Although it is a full-length collection, the first section in particular is a vision about how to start a collection really strong, meaning in an impressionable way and showcasing formal variety[.]”

Jordan visited my Wooster classes in person and via Zoom on multiple occasions, which allowed an opportunity for them to discuss both form and content with the poet himself.  My students noted that the word “mother” comes up many times in Jordan’s poems “Orientation: Wittenberg University, 1983” and “Que Sera Sera” from the collection Rise, and that Jordan’s poetic form signals that the mother could be his own or someone else’s or everybody’s. He expressed to them after they studied “Orientation” that he wanted to make the Wittenberg University orientation experience easier on his mom, who was jolted by seeing her son and other first-generation students wholly unprepared for undergraduate life.  This culture and class shock resonated with many of my Wooster students, and it is crucial to discuss the ways in which, among other formal strategies, Jordan’s choices of when to use end-stops vs. enjambment create that feeling. One detailed example that we discussed was the additional question mark removed but still felt after the word “color” in the following lines:  But is there really a color / for ignorance when it hurts self? / I can see that I’m not ready. Astute students noted that they learned in college-level literature, Africana Studies, and sociology classes that race is a social construction, and that the enjambment here is key in showing that the speaker, just out of high school, may not yet have been able to put academic language to how their younger mind was actually querying about race and its overall effects. To put it another way, my students think the enjambment here perfectly exhibits how quickly a high schooler, after college orientation and some college courses, may move from feeling pain, or worse, shame around racist acts to questioning race itself and blaming society for inequalities that stem from it. Furthermore, they observed, the end-stop after the word “ready” indicates that this first-generation speaker feels entirely cut off from the worlds of pre-knowledge to which other students at the orientation already had access.  Some readers also thought this poem’s setting in the classroom to be one meant to relay that there exists a power battle between students and their elders (“I decide what to do before she even gives…”). While a valid analysis, Jordan’s aims concern the ethics of pedagogy: he sees the classroom as a space meant for the equal exchange of ideas from all gathered.  His mother’s sense of displacement, her disorientation by race and class at the undergraduate orientation, push the poem’s speaker to envision a disruption of long-established exclusion and power imbalances. The poem’s speaker boldly asserts that they should be “setting out” to always “make a mockery of (any divisions drawn in) class.” Likewise, Van Jordan’s form choices play with readers—to prove that society needs lessons on how not to be ruled by race, class, and other related biases, Jordan tricks them in to reading the word “class” as both social division and a course for instruction at the same time. 

In my Literary Theory class, we did a unit on Jacques Derrida, deconstruction, and the panopticon. To focus on form, the class viewed Tom Tykwer’s innovative German action film Run Lola Run (1998) as a text about life as a text: relatedly, Derrida’s famous line, “everything is a text,” reminded them that deconstruction theory relies on all things being open to multiple interpretations. We then read Jordan’s poem on the film and found that its form also simulated an unfinished puzzle, lacking only the final pieces of the reader’s/viewer’s hopes, doubts, and judgements. One student was curious about what inspired Jordan to focus on Manni and Lola’s relationship and was also interested in Jordan’s choices in poetic structure. While it is not the exact form of an English sonnet, it seemed to them to be loosely modeled after one with the separated stanzas and rhyming couplet at the end. Jordan responded that, “‘Run Lola Run’ is written as a terza rima. I wanted a form that had a system of repetition in it, but a repetition that also showed a relationship between moments that came before the present moment. I close on a couplet to show both closure and for it to represent the couple in the film.” He wanted the poem to end on a note of relationship advice and for that advice to clue into what the cycles in the film mean and to the meaning of the film as a whole. According to Jordan: “When I saw this film in the theaters in the late 90s, I just saw it as an adrenaline rush of an adventure with a brilliant structure. When I saw it again with some distance, I was able to focus on the relationship, which is really what dictates the structure of the film. The one lesson I walk away from the film with is that relationships take work, but working at them pays off. I wish I had picked up on that piece of advice sooner.” So the poet links poetic form and content to cinematic form and content and makes these connections clear to the students.

Jordan’s M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A is about 13-year-old MacNolia Cox who was the first Black winner of the Akron District Spelling Bee in 1936. Cox was thought to have lost in the final round of national competition because the Southern white judges cheated her. Jordan deploys film’s narrative conventions to tell this story of Black struggle and achievement, all the while engaging with and expanding on poetic form. Many of the poem titles come from screenplay headings, are called movie reviews, and have film directions such as “Interior/Exterior” in them. My students working in small groups in class are especially responsive to the unique form of this collection about the spelling bee. For instance, in my Religion in Black Film and Literature class, time and time again when we watch the movie The Green Pastures, and then read the poem “Green Pastures” from Jordan’s collection:  students are taken aback by this 1936 film directed by two white men which depicts stereotyped stories from the Bible as visualized by Black characters. Then, they recall that it was released during the same year that MacNolia Cox won the Bee in Akron. The personified Jim Crow who “works on the long track in hell” in Jordan’s “Green Pastures” poem resonates with them. Similarly, the way in which Jordan utilizes wordplay to compare imagined signs now reading “Negroes, Too” on water fountains in this film’s south to the strands of pearls middle-aged women wear stands out to my students. They note the irony: these imaginary signs adorning the water fountains came much too late in history, and so, as Jordan’s clever form choice highlights, they have lost any and all opportunity to hang “elegantly”:  they are forever cruel and distasteful (92).

College and university-level faculty and students would benefit from robust teaching tools and spaces which focus on not only Black poetry’s content but also its innovative form. After all, the form guides the purpose and tone of a poem. When the message and form fit together, the product is poetry that is truly powerful. Even more powerful is watching a process unfold while teaching about the form of A. Van Jordan’s texts in particular alongside film, visual art, literary theory, or music: students generate something new and we instructors see them find their way by mapping interdisciplinarity.

Works Cited

I Want to See my Skirt. Directed by Cauleen Smith, in collaboration with poet A. Van Jordan, 2006.

Jordan, A. Van. The Cineaste: Poems, New York: Norton, 2013. 

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster African American Literature Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. November 15, 2020. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.

Jordan, A. Van. “College of Wooster Literary Theory and Research Methods Student Questions.” Received by A. Van Jordan. February 20, 2019. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie. 

Jordan, A. Van. The Homesteader, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2013.

Jordan, A. Van.  M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, New York: Norton, 2004. 

Jordan, A. Van. Quantum Lyrics, New York: Norton, 2007.

Jordan, A. Van. Rise, Symar, CA: Tia Chucha, 2001.

Jordan, A. Van and Cauleen Smith.  I Want to See my Skirt, Greensboro, Unicorn Press, 2021.

“Our Life in Poetry:  New Poets/New Poetics.”  The Philoctetes Center.  Event Program.  29 January 2008.

Rowell, Charles H. “The Poem is Smarter than the Poet: An Interview with A. Van Jordan.” Callaloo.  Volume 27, Number 4, Fall 2004. 908-919.

Tykwer, Tom. Lola Rennt: Run Lola Run. Germany: X-Filme Creative Pool Productions, 1989.

Wang, Dorothy J.  Thinking its Presence:  Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry.  Stanford UP, 2015. xxii.

Wynn, Juan. “A. Van Jordan’s Poetry.” Received by Juan Wynn, January 1, 2022. Email Interview. Wingard, Leslie.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Leslie E. Wingard earned her BA in English from Spelman College and her PhD in English from UCLA. She is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. Her articles have been published by Religion and LiteratureReligion and the ArtsSouth: A Scholarly JournalChristianity & Literature, and American Quarterly. Her book under contract at the University of Georgia Press is entitled The Acts and Arts of Faith: Representation and Black Christianity. Her primary research areas include African American literature, Black visual culture, and women’s and gender studies. She has been a research fellow at Haverford College, Williams College, Princeton University, and Princeton Theological Seminary. 


By Roger Reeves, PhD


At first, I thought to trace an aesthetic through-line in Cyrus Cassells’ poems, from The Mud Actor, his first book of poems, a National Poetry Series winner published in 1981, to More Than Watchmen at Daybreak (2020), his most recent collection, a sequential poem broken up into twelve sections which was written while in silence / silent retreat at the Benedictine Brother at the Christ in the Desert monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico. I thought I might trace Cassells’ shifting use of nouns and verbs or his deployment and performance of queerness or Blackness since his writing life and books span a vast historical period that have seen seismic shifts in the way that Black folks and queer folks have been treated and incorporated into the mythology and narrative of America. The Mud Actor appears at the beginning of the Reagan years, in a post- Jim Crow America, that will see the rise of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in queer communities that the Reagan administration will belligerently, nonchalantly address. Cassells writes his latest book, More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, at the height of a neo-fascist turn in right-wing, mainstream American politics—this fascistic turn ushered in by the Trump administration’s xenophobia, which Cassells deftly alludes to in the first poem of More Than Watchmen at Daybreak, “Winter Abbey with Venus Rising,” when the speaker locates himself “Far from the deriding republic” and ‘mint-new Herod decrees’ (14). I thought to trace or overlay palimpsest-like these concerns, conflicts, and histories overtop Cassells’ work to see how he either explicitly or implicitly contends with the shifting nation and his place or the place of the poem in it. Or, more so to see how these moments of contestation, rupture, and crises shaped the poetics. But, you know what they say about best-laid plans. And, I, somewhat, sabotaged myself by reading the poems in reverse chronological order, beginning with most recent work and moving backwards—starting with More Than Watchmen at Daybreak moving to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo (2018) and so on. However, whenever I moved on to the next books—The Crossed-Out Swastika (2012), Beautiful Signor (1997)—I couldn’t shake a bit of Latin that appeared in the second poem of the sequence of More Than Watchman at Daybreak, “Accepting the Peace of Saint Francis Hermitage.” The poem begins with a command to the listener (reader) which also might serve as an admonishment to the speaker as well: “Listen, out of love and goodwill,…” (15). And you do, you listen, but what’s surprising is that after learning of the speaker’s small room he’s been gifted, a Latin phrase flutters down almost like the spirit of God descending like a gauze from the ceiling above: “….Benedictus qui venit / In nomine domini,…” (15). Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord, I believe, is the translation. Please forgive my Latin or lack thereof. The phrase is a canticle from the New Testament of the Bible—Luke, Chapter 1, verse 68. But more than a hymn or chant from a Benedictine worship song, it is also a prevailing poetics or aesthetic concern of Cassells’ poems. But I would extend that snatch of Latin to say: Benedictus qui venit nominee domini…and the Body.

Cassells comes to the poem to not only write in the name of the Lord, in the name of the celestial, in the name of the divine at “the cusp of inchoate vermillion,” at “the sacramental banks with pallid embroideries of ice,” but also, as the two aforementioned quotes gesture towards, Cassells comes to write devotionally with impeccable precision of the body, the body “far from the deriding republic” and the body mocked by the same republic for ‘resembling a ‘red-boned’ angel in a hammock, one who finds himself falling in love with another boy with ‘tea-brown fingers’ (4). These devotional poems, which are always in proximity and conversation with “Herod’s decrees,” historicize and reframe a vast array of abuses—from national abuses enacted by governments and political regimes to the ongoing struggle against homophobia and queer antagonism in Black communities—through an attention to what is circumscribing or surrounding them—the stars, the sun, the beauty, the “deep-down plenty” in “the midst of bondage” (16). Cassells’ poems remind me of that moment in Cornelius Eady poem “Gratitude” where the speaker proclaims “I am brick in a house / that is being built / around your house”—the “your house” being the master’s, the nation’s, the oppressor’s house (143). Cassells is not only a brick in a house, but he, himself, is building a house to surround and neutralize various disasters and catastrophes as if to say beauty exists here, too. You cannot take this from me, from us, you old “conniving Caesars of Cotton” and “Greed-Swayed Kings of Sugar.” Cassells subverts, pierces, and disrupts that which might annihilate life through a devotion to that which faces extermination, liquidation—those who are historically and continually remanded to the liminal position of eradication. You and me.

Cassells expresses this poetics, this devotion in the Black-est of ways—the hyphen. Or, maybe I should make that assertion differently, with a little less essentialism. Revision: I’ve come to trace Cassells’ devotion to life in the middle of ongoing catastrophe through the hyphen and hyphenated phrases like “star-scouting / soul-of-a-nighthawk leap—….,” what Cassells calls “the bull’s eye of the beguiling / compound words of Gullah” (11, 25). In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston calls these sorts of constructions double-descriptors, action-words that dramatize Black life through metaphoricity, performance, “the will to adorn” this drab English language that was thrust upon Black folks because of our captivity. In Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, Jennifer Devere Brody advances Hurston’s claims about the funkiness of the hyphen by interrogating American grammarians and their sacrosanct grammar manuals with their call for unification of words—a sort of treatise against the hyphen—as an extension of U.S. hegemony and liberal forms of consolidating power, politics, patriotism, and American nationalist ideology. Hyphens, in their visibility, highlight an incommensurability, an unresolved in-between-ness that performs the impossible while yet not healing or correcting the impossibility.

Cassells’ use of the hyphenated adjectives / double-descriptors, particularly in the title poem to The Gospel According to Wild Indigo and More Than Watchman at Daybreak, dramatize several impossibilities / incommensurables at once—the incommensurability of English to account for African Diasporic (Gullah) culture ways, bodies, sensuality, and life; the impossibility of queerness to reside in parochial, Protestant houses. While this might be considered ‘a will to adorn’ (to call back to Hurston), I think we must expand what we think of adornment. It is not merely ornamentation—superfluous and unneeded. Extra. Rather, the will to adorn is the will to critique, an improvising that opens up possibilities inside of a standard, an orthodoxy, a cage. Cassells’ use of double-descriptors opens up the possibility of reaching for a known thing, something like a Black life, behind and beyond the captor’s language. For instance, in “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” Cassells begins with a meditation (an ode that is also an interrogation) of the Gullah word for daybreak, dawn, the new sun—dayclean, which itself we can understand as a type of double descriptor, action-word even without a hyphen. With its connotations of awakening in a new day after some conflict or contestation, clear of some dirt from the day before, the word dayclean acts as a presiding sentiment, an ontological space of fugitivity, a moment of possibility and renewal in the ongoing disaster of anti-Blackness and homophobia. Dayclean, its always-arriving, acts as a bulwark against annihilation. However, its multiplicity, its standing-in-for-so-many-things, makes the term quite slippery. And makes meditating upon dayclean, writing lyrically about it, even more difficult. This difficulty pushes Cassells to dramatize the unsayable nature of the word:

Dayclean’s the Gullah word
for the gala sun, the looked-for

melon, meticulous,

It’s as if Cassells wants more out of the English, wants English to be able to accurately state multiples states of being at the same time. Cassells wants both a past (as evinced in the term “looked-for”) and present and future (as evinced in the term “up-and-coming”). He wants a state of being / a tense that exists an ongoing-ness.  A state of being that can express not-yet-arrived-but-known, which is the voicing of the incommensurable. However, this state, this tense does not exist so Cassells dramatically and poetically enacts it through the winding sentence over the time and space of two couplets and the hyphenated adjectives.

These hyphenated adjectives do not make one such appearance in the first section of the poem and then fall away. Instead, they are the engine that drives the poem. In section II of “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo,” these double descriptors / hyphenated adjectives appear on every other line of the first three stanzas—“glove-yellow” to describe the morning, “crow-carried” to describe mussels, “priest-gentle” to describe the pines. The phrases act performatively. Here I mean the term performatively in the J.L. Austin sense of the term—they make something happen through their vocalizing. Something like movement, action. It’s as if Cassells calls the morning, the mussels, the pines into being, into a present or ongoing-ness. These phrases provide not only an impeccable precision to the visual and emotional register to Cassells’ poems, but they also act as a blessing—a benediction—in the form of praise. “The Gospel According to Wild Indigo” praises the margins and the marginal of (Black) life—the Gullah people of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia sea islands, the Mount Pleasant aunties, “okra-cooking grannies,” “shredded barbecue / in a Winn-Dixie plastic bucket,” “Marquetta’s stone-ground grits,” Augustus, the speaker’s boyhood crush (11-13). Cassells’ speaker even loves Augustus’ ‘gumption…to share // news of [their] pistol-hot love with [his] pew-strict, / disowning father….” (13). Cassells bring his mouth and ear to that which is castigated for its transgressions and transgressiveness, for its impossibility and incommensurability, and praises its difference—queer love, queer language.

This playing in the non-normativity of language and love simultaneously, through the use of the hyphen resists the unifying narrative of nationalism, resists a monolithic construction of Blackness. Locating American Blackness in the Gullah, a group of Black folks on the territorial margins of the United States, and in queer love in youth (youth being another position of political marginality), Cassells makes a poetic statement about the complicated-ness of nation, belonging, and community; he locates nation and Blackness not in its unities but in its moments of contestation and difference, in its ruptures—at the hyphen. There, Blackness becomes itself—its many varied and multiple selves, at its margins—dayclean. Divine.

It’s irony for sure, but it’s the divine irony of a poet who understands that it is being devoted to difference—to the banal and the celestial—that brings about the divine. In other words, Cassells’ attention to that which we might call God and that which we might call the flesh, the body, is a type of divinity, one that understands the secular, the corporal, the sensual, the sexual, the political as connected to that which historically and theologically we have thought as beyond the body, pure of its stink and wants. And Cassells performs this praising, this attention, this devotion through the difficulty of the incommensurable. Through impossible. And provides for us, the reader, a path through the shouting.


Works Cited

Austin, J.L. How to do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.

Cassells, Cyrus. The Mud Actor. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1982.

Beautiful Signor. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1997.

–. The Crossed-Out Swastika. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

–. The Gospel According to Wild Indigo. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 2018.

–. More Than Watchman at Daybreak. LaFayette, New York: Nine Mile Books, 2020.

Eady, Cornelius. Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “Characteristics of Negro Expression.”


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Roger Reeves by Beowulf Sheehan
© Beowulf Sheehan


Roger Reeves first book of poems, King Me, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2013. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, among others. He’s won awards and fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts, The Whiting Foundation, and Princeton University. This fall and spring, he will be fellow at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. His next book of poems, Best Barbarian, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton in February / March of 2022.


By Jameela Dallis, PhD

“Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little
pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me”

“we are all the poems that will not be quiet / we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives”—
—Jaki Shelton Green, “No Poetry”


Jaki Shelton Green sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife, sharpens her oyster knife. These words are litany, invocation, invitation, and view into the poetic realm of Jaki Shelton Green—a poet who believes poems should be physical and immersive and that “writing is about listening.” She is a poet for whom “joy is resistance” and writing is “full of light.”[1] And it’s within such light that we form, as Audre Lorde says, “ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized” (24). Shelton Green’s poems hold, reflect, remember, and project experiences across a range of identities, ways of being, and possibilities of being.[2] Shelton Green is North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate—the third woman and first African American to have been appointed to the role—and she is one of my dearest friends.

March 2018, I knew she was someone I should know. In fact, a mutual friend said so. Our first meeting, following a Natasha Trethewey lecture at the Nasher Museum of Art, was brief. I was instantly enamored with Shelton Green’s style—her signature vermillion round glasses (à la Iris Apfel), her bespoke jewelry, her full head of big curls. She was approachable, asked me about myself, and mentioned a few presses to have on my radar. Later that year, fresh with the grief of a lover’s passing, and the uneasy elation of a new Visiting Assistant Professor position, I received my first assignment for a regional independent newspaper, Indy Week. Editor Brian Howe was familiar with my scholarly background and trusted me to interview Shelton Green in her new role as North Carolina’s ninth Poet Laureate. I wasn’t very familiar with Shelton Green’s work, but I googled everything I could and read as many excerpts, interviews, and poems that I could find online. Shelton Green and I met on a hot Sunday morning in September. What was meant to be an hour-long interview stretched for at least two. She graciously answered my questions. I took copious notes. We shared insights off the record and become fast friends. She invited me to her home for dinner a week later.

This essay is part love letter, part introduction to and meditation on Shelton Green’s poetry and vision. Here, I’ll spend time with selected poems from the span of Shelton Green’s career. Many of her early poems explore the richness and complexity of love in its myriad forms. But, even so, her earlier collections remind us that “history has never left us” and her later poems reveal a matured romantic love and the palpable, inscrutable grief of losing one’s child. As a documentary poet, Shelton Green’s poetry bears witness to individual, familial, and communal histories and shows us her art—her ability to “create a language for what she wants to hold without sending people running.”[3] Yet, Shelton Green uses her figurative oyster knife to agitate and open us to the beauty of reading, listening to, and being moved to act by the narratives, the images, the feelings, and the people we encounter in her poems. For poetry, as Audre Lorde says, “forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action” (25).

Dead on Arrival and conjure blues

From her debut, Shelton Green has moved freely from the personal to the historical and maintains a sense of intimacy and agency throughout. In the preface to the first edition of Dead on Arrival (1977), poet and reviewer Lance Jeffers writes, “The winged and delicate imagery of Jaki Shelton . . . may be a harbinger of poetic greatness. . . . Should this idiosyncratic development continue, she will move, I believe, into a circle of greatness” (vii). The book sold out and a second edition with new poems sold out again in 1983. The collection holds poems of understated sensuality as in “shadow,” which begins with “those white shoulders have never / locked / around / black thighs” (1-4). While “and in my old days—“ alludes to the last king of Dahomey opening with “agoliagbo! / agoliagbo!” and the speaker warns, “do not try to / renew me / I am fluid,” asserting her freedom and, perhaps, slipping from the grasp of French colonists (3-5).[4] 

The poem, “the moon is a rapist,” is bold for its time and operates on several levels as it’s hard to ignore that Roe v. Wade was decided only four years before the arrival of Dead on Arrival. The poem’s speaker asks the moon, “why do you kneel there peeing in my window / you kneeling there upon my earth / impregnating the night crawlers with glow,” and Shelton Green’s ability to anthropomorphize the celestial body into a night creeper, an exhibitionist Peeping Tom in three lines is simply astounding (1-3). The moon’s “soft yellowness penetrates” the speaker’s walls and the speaker says,

                        you entered as you were
                        yellow streams of pee
                        leaving traces upon the bed
                        rapist you are
                        beating your rays into my buttocks (6-10)

The violence of the “soft rapist” moon is the caress of its glow, its yellow urine-colored light that is only a reflection of the sun that “knocks loudly upon [the speaker’s] door” (14, 15). We see the female speaker, nude in her bed, bathed in violent light that not only impregnates the night crawlers but her as well. These “moon babies i shall abort / moon babies come out of my birth pouch” she says (12). Though we know people with uteruses have been aborting fetuses for millennia, the landmark decision provided unprecedented agency and access to safe abortions. Though the moon is a rapist, the speaker isn’t bound to birth its children.

In conjure blues (1996), Shelton Green writes several poems for her children, paints intimate moments between lovers, and conjures people living through historical events both tragic and illuminating—the essence of the Blues. Read these poems aloud. Feel their rhythm. They are meant to be experienced. One poem, “insult,” brings Carrie Mae Weems’s iconic 1990 Kitchen Table Series to mind with a woman sitting “with elbows at attention” waiting on breakfast (12). The poem begins, “bacon is burning again / overdue notices form a multicolored border / around the dresser mirror” (1-3). The speaker admires her woodworker lover’s “rich redbrown” back (5) and then “bacon is smoking the kitchen / why does he not cook it in the oven” (8-9). With those lines, we see the smoky kitchen—the bacon is doing the action—and the speaker’s question carries with it the closeness of a well-lived-in romance. We imagine the repeated suggestion that he cook the bacon in the oven for this very reason. There’s a relatability and maybe we think of someone in our lives who never takes our advice and yet we love them madly anyway. In my head, I hear Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne” as the woman sucks on “mandarin orange slices” (13) and the final lines of the poem feel like a nod to and revision of “the moon is a rapist”:

                        it is a yellow bedroom
                        the egg yolk is running
                        splashes on this thigh
                        she wants to start there
                        licking the spill from his
                        only he’d push her aside and never understand
                        that she doesn’t want to fuck
                        just enjoy breakfast (19-27)

Here the yellow is the color of the bedroom and yolk The woman is the agent of desire, but her desire isn’t for sex, but rather for the sensual experience of the viscous yolk. The “insult” is both experience and implied. There’s the implied insult of cooking advice ignored and the implied insult of being denied (undesired) intercourse. That Shelton Green paints such a scene in less than 30 lines is a testament to her poetic brilliance.

Rememory and Remembering
In several poetry collections, Shelton Green works with the concept of rememory and takes on the task of remembering historical events, putting flesh back on the bones of lost peoples, people who’ve been silenced, and people whose lives have been devalued. Toni Morrison describes rememory as “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324). One such poem in conjure blues is “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” The September 3, 1991 fire injured 55 and killed 25 workers trapped behind locked fire doors. Many believed racism and poor oversight contributed to the high death toll because during the processing plant’s 11 years of operation, there had never been a safety inspection. The plant never reopened.[5] The poem conjures both the Blues and those killed in the fire:

                        there is still a sadness stuck in my mouth
                        that makes me wanna suck
                        on something that i have not tasted
                        for so long
                        what does it mean to not be able to remember
                        your mama’s breast
                        bronze nipples, rising, falling,
                        but the blues remember
                        so without being able to explain
                        i feel this song surging inside of me
                        grinning, shouting
                        i feel this song my every question,
                        my why for, my how come,
                       my what did i do to be so black and blue (1-14)

The poem moves from the present moment—that moment the speaker longs to remember their mother’s breast, a return to innocence that also acknowledges their untimely death due to racist, classist, and anti-worker practices. Shelton Green’s poem begins and ends with the same image of the mother’s bronze nipple and moves readers and listeners through a dirge that remembers the victims of this preventable tragedy.

In Feeding the Light (2014) “an eclipse of skin” is an ekphrastic poem remembering a lynching.[6] The poem tells the larger story of an enslaved man, William, whose owner accuses William of touching his wife’s apron. The poem’s entire sixth stanza is a runaway slave reward advertisement. With phrases such as “He is a / shiny black, lean built with large limbs, long fingers, he is hung / like a race horse” and “He has usually small feet for a nigga and / missing the toe next to this great toe on his left foot,” we are reminded of the dehumanization enslaved people endured and the paradox of being deemed both white men’s property and a sexual threat to white women (22-25). William is hanged for the offense. In the poem’s seventh stanza, a new speaker says, “masa hung my william” (28) and continues:

                        had him hung from the chinaberry tree
                        same tree my william plant for masa
                        when william was just a child
                        masa make me and my baby liza watch
                        from the kitchen
                        liza my child and masa child too (25-34)

Shelton Green captures the cruel hypocrisy of a slaveowner who rapes and impregnates an enslaved woman and lynches an enslaved man who we learn in stanza five was coerced by the slaveowner’s wife. The same wife callously complains “bout how william blood gone kill / the grass” (43-44). Yet, this passage recalls the ending of Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Sweat,” wherein protagonist Delia Jones waits under a chinaberry tree for her abusive husband Sykes to die from a rattlesnake bite. Here the mention of the tree may suggest that retribution for William’s death is on the horizon.[7]

The poem continues:

                        masa had him hung
                        passed out cigars and cups of peach brandy 
                        made me suck him off in the kitchen
                        in front of aunt sue
                        making apple fritters (45-49)

The rapist slaveowner’s cruelty is endless reminding readers and listeners that in a society where people own other people, there is no room for sexual agency or consent but, alas, there is sometimes space for retribution. In the ninth stanza, Aunt Sue speaks to the apples, sugar, and fire—she conjures—and nature “remember[s] in all the languages / of storm” (56-58). By the eleventh stanza, the sky is black: “black like masa blood up yonder / black like missus scalp / rolling off the bed” (60-62).

In “an eclipse of skin,” Shelton Green remembers the lynched man by empowering the Black women who loved and survived him. When Aunt Sue speaks to the ingredients, she invokes the power of conjure—the power to speak a desired outcome into being. The women transmute their pain, their mistreatment, the violence done to their bodies into speech, into memory, into magic. Ultimately, the power of Black women’s voices, our imaginations, our dreams, and our poems “give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare” (Lorde 27).

Shelton Green’s most recent poetry collection, i want to undie you (2017), is a lament, a space to hold the inscrutable sorrow for her daughter, Imani Muya Shelton Green, who died in June 2009. The first five lines of the title poem, “i want to undie you,” are full of both searching and deep knowing:

                       i have come to this new place whose trees have no medicine
                       barren ground that has never tasted a thimble of blood
                       where birds fly backwards and sky is afraid of falling
                       it is here that i say goodbye to my woman-child who is remembering her
                       name and searching for the river where her story was born (1-5)

Poetry becomes a space where Shelton Green can reconnect with her daughter while connecting us with a most private form of grieving. Shelton Green’s language gestures toward what can’t be fully comprehended but has still been experienced. It is this paradox of feeling that lends this collection its heartbreaking beauty.

In “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother,” the speaker lists all the ways she wants her daughter to undie—from “i want the dust of you unscattered” and “i want the grief of you un-grieved” to “i want the verb or you un-verbed” and “un-diagnose the diagnosis of you” (1, 3-4, 8, 12). It is hard to find the language to describe this poem. It is at once a poem of negation and desire, of remembering and remembering. In the final poem of this collection, “now,” the speaker says “i write books. store grief upside down on the top pantry shelf where seldom / used wedding gifts rest beside oversized serving platters the antique tea service / and those tacky fake porcelain teacups i can’t bear to toss” (1-3). The grief here is palpable, but it is also shelveable. Yet, it remains. Grief inhabits an interstitial space resting between the treasured and what we hold on to because we feel we must. Grief is like that. It’s the evidence that we loved someone—that we still remember and remember someone through poetry, conversations, and dreams.

In conversation with oyster knives

Here I return to the beginning and bring together Hurston and Shelton Green once more. The Hurston epigraph, from her renowned 1928 essay, “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” embodies Hurston’s unconventional and anachronistic approach to race and identity—in the sense that she refused to be confined by her contemporaries. Hurston’s full passage is worth reproducing here:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife. (153)

Hurston refuses to embrace a defeatist point of view or be easily categorized. She sees the world as full of potential and is bent on experiencing as much of it as possible. Arguably, Shelton Green inherited a similar spirit from her grandmother who she describes as “a wild woman” who “was always present in a very large way” and was the “first horticulturist” Shelton Green had known (Shockley 121). Her grandmother both “loved living things” and “the texture of nice things” and could be “very feminine” and “girly” (121-22). This juxtaposition, this “openness” taught Shelton Green “not to fear things that are different” and to be a “risk-taker” and, she says, “To stand outside of who you are. To widen your lens of how you view your world and how you invite other people’s perspectives into that world” (122).

“No Poetry,” on The River Speaks of Thirst is one space where I find Shelton Green and Hurston in conversation and where I’ll end this essay.[8] Shelton Green’s poem begins:

                       no poetry for these hands
                       no poetry for these trees
                       no poetry for these men
                       no poetry for the time you chase
                       no poetry for the dreams that hold you hostage
                       no poetry for the truth brewing inside crooked hallways, crooked courtrooms, crooked jail houses
                       no poetry for the fog covering the blood
                       no poetry for the noose flapping against the wind’s tongue

The speaker continues declaring “no poetry” for the wrongs Blacks have known past and present and then shifts, and cracks the poem open into something different. The speaker declares:

                      we are all the poems lurking in the shadows
                      we are all the poems that cannot be forced into cages
                      we are all the poems holding up the sky
                      we are all the poems that will no longer sacrifice our seeds to a toxic wind
                      we are all the poems rattling the ghost bones of the Middle Passage
                      we are all the poems pissing on bloodstained flags

The shift is significant. The poem moves from all the spaces either bereft of or unworthy of poetry to a collective chorus of living poems, potentially dangerous poems for those who attempt to cage or silence the speakers. Then:

                      we are all the poems that will not be quiet
                      we are all the poems waiting to sharpen our oyster knives

And finally, “we are all the poems we need to start a revolution.” And that’s what Jaki Shelton Green’s poetry is always reaching toward—a revolution of feeling, of thought, and of we acknowledge and reckon with our history, our ancestry, ourselves, and our futures.

In the second epigraph and final section of this essay, I cite lines from Shelton Green’s 2020 poetry album, The River Speaks of Thirst. Note that although the album has been released, not all of the album’s poems have been published. Thus, line breaks are approximate and I have done my best to cite the work faithfully and have consulted with Shelton Green when necessary about language only.

I have capitalized Black when referring to people of African descent. I have not changed the capitalization of black in quoted material.

Works Cited:
Green, Jaki Shelton. “an eclipse of skin.” Feeding the Light, Jacar Press, 2014, pp. 18-21.

—. “and in my old days—.“ Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 27.
—. “insult.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 44-45.
—. ”i want to undie you.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “i want you to un-die, come back said the mother.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “No Poetry.” The River Speaks of Thirst, Soul City Sounds, 2020.
—. “now.” i want to undie you, Jacar Press, 2017, no pagination.
—. “shadow.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 47.
—. “the moon is a rapist.” Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, p. 10.
—. “tribute to the men and women who perished in the Imperial Chicken Plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina.” conjure blues, Carolina Wren Press, 1996, pp. 34-37.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to be Colored Me.” The World Tomorrow, May 1928, reprinted in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive Paperback, CUNY Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152-55.
—. “Sweat.” Fire!! 1926, reprinted in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: 1914-1945, 9th ed, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 517-25.

Jeffers, Lance. Preface to the first edition. Dead on Arrival and New Poems, reissued by Carolina Wren Press, 1996, vii.

Morrison, Toni. “Rememory.” The Source of Self-Regard. Knoph, 2019, pp. 322-25.

Shockley, Evie. “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green.” Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010), pp. 121-28.

[1] Green made several remarks about her approach to writing on during a talkbalk I facilitated March 14, 2021 after the second priemere of the theatrical production of The River Speaks of Thirst, directed by Kristi V. Johnson and produced by The Justice Theater Project.  

[2] Here I use “remember” in the style of Toni Morrison’s “rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past” (324).

[3] Quotations are from Green’s remarks on March 14, 2021. See endnote 1 above.

[4] Read one version of the last king of Dahomey’s story at Face2Face Africa.

[5] Read more about the Hamlet chicken plant fire on Wikipedia.

[6] Green says the poem “was in a collaborative exhibit called Lullaby Plantation. I offered poetic responses to the images. This poem responds to a photograph of a lynching” in a March 2, 2014 comment published on the website When Women Waken.

[7] Zora Neale Hurston is one of the several influences and beleoved writers Greens mentions in the interview “Lifting Veils: An Interview with Jaki Shelton Green” by Evie Shockley published in Obsidian 10/11 (2009/2010) pp. 121-128.

[8] On The River Speaks of Thirst, “No Poetry” is performed by Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s first Poet Laureate, CJ Suitt—a queer, Black person.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Jameela F. Dallis, PhD is a writer and scholar who has been teaching, leading conversations, and facilitating workshops for more than a decade. A former Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Elon University and UNC-Greensboro, Jameela has worked with several museums and arts organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, Ackland Art Museum, and Nasher Museum of Art. Her poems, interviews, arts journalism, and literary scholarship have appeared in several publications including Honey LiteraryThoughts on the Power of Goodness, Our State, Decoded: A Duke Performances JournalIndy Week, Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siècle to the Millennium, and Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture. She holds a Ph.D. in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. Learn more about her work at


By Deborah McDowell, PhD


I came first to the writing of Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1990s, when I happened upon All Saints (1997) on the crowded shelves of Powell’s, a used bookstore in Chicago. To say that the spine of this slim yet hefty volume lured me, spoke to me, is to summon a cliché, I concede, but this is exactly what happened. Conducting research at the time for a study of the rituals and poetics of grief and mourning in African American literature and culture, I had no idea of the book’s contents, but from the moment I sat down on a dusty stack of cardboard boxes and began to read it, I knew that I had stumbled upon a jewel of a book and a jewel of a poet. I began to search out and devour everything in Osbey’s corpus I could find, going back to the early volumes — Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983), In These Houses (1988), and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (1991) — but in the roughly 25 years since, All Saints, my first encounter with Osbey’s work, remains the book among her many published titles, I recommend to anyone who wants an introduction to Osbey, the thematic scope of her work, and a glimpse into her ever- evolving poetic practice.  I keep multiple copies of All Saints on hand, gifting them to aspiring poets and avid readers. 

“Why All Saints?” some have asked? I answer, without hesitation, “Because it is the book that captures for me the essence of Brenda Marie Osbey, who is simply, unequivocally, one of the most talented writers of her generation.” Some readers of this issue of The Fight & The Fiddle will be well familiar with her work, but for those new to it, I offer this introduction, focused less on Osbey’s poetics and signatures of craft, than on her themes and philosophies as a writer.

Osbey’s body of work straddles many boundaries and spans diverse intellectual and artistic forms at once: narrative poetry, the lyric, historical narrative, and the personal essay. She has written libretti, translated writers from other languages, including most recently, her translations of poems from the French by Leon-Gontran Damas, which appeared in Black Renaissance Noire (Fall 2018). She has also compiled and edited the poetry of Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, publishing Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems in 2016. Not only has Osbey expressed her spectrum of interests in various aesthetic forms, she has also embraced digital media, recording her poems on various electronic sites, providing her readers a sonic experience with her exquisite poetry, as can be found in “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba.”

A native of New Orleans, Osbey has lived most of her life in the Seventh Ward, and this city has served as the wellspring of much of her writing. But while so much of her work draws brilliantly on the “Crescent City,” it does so with the understanding that this Gulf region has “long been a stunningly cross-cultural matrix” (Flores-Silva and Cartwright 174). Osbey captures its Creole culture, textures, and mysteries, melding them into her singular preoccupations as a writer: death and dying, loss and mourning. In her essay, “Writing Home,” Osbey describes death, not just as a central theme, but also a central character of her work. “Not death as Thief in the Night, Grim Reaper, or even Final Repose. But the specific idea of the Dead as part of the continuum of our families and communities” (37), most especially in New Orleans. As she writes in another essay, “I Want to Die in New Orleans,” it is “the only place in this country where people understand the importance of dying well. Where cemeteries are as prominent as office towers. Where the dead get equal time with the living,” where they “walk and talk among the living . . . only now with an authority they never possessed in life” (Lowe 246). I agree with Thadious Davis that, in Osbey’s writings, New Orleans constitutes a “dual city, the city of the living and its embedded double the city of the dead” (239).

Perhaps nowhere in Osbey’s work is this duality more apparent than in All Saints. Flores-Silva and Cartwright do well to remind us that All Saints, like Osbey’s later volume All Souls (2015), comes “from the Gulf’s ritual calendar when days are set aside as puentes (bridges) between secular and sacred life, the living and the dead” (148). Because the latter volume, subtitled The Essential Poems, contains selections from All Saints, I will refer mainly to the poems in that volume here, which might be read as the instantiation of a command the poet issues at the start of its first section: “live among your dead, whom you have every right to love.” The seven poems in this section, notes Thadious Davis, “move between mourning poems for the recently departed, the foreign dead in the Transatlantic African world, and the familial dead in the factories of the American South” (240), but even the poems in later sections of the volume show the stamp of Osbey’s “peculiar fascination with the dead” (25), to borrow the title of one poem.

In “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” which begins with the ritual acts of lighting votive candles, building altars to the dead, keeping mourning portraits, and placing “silver coins in the four corners of your rooms” (25), the speaker is literally living among the dead, speaking of them “as though … they might hear / from the adjoining room” (25). Twelve years old when she is introduced to this domestication of death, the speaker observes these ritual obligations to the dead throughout her life:

i carry silver coins
in the pockets of all my clothes
photographs of my dead follow me
to each new residence.
votive candles and st. john’s wort
go near the head of my grocery lists. (33)

The speaker judges her later lovers “by the heft of mourning / below their eyes / picking my way through their sorrows,” even “carr[ying] the grudges of my dead / like bowls of ash” (33).  Strikingly, she refers to the dead, as my dead, and these remembered souls and loved ones take on the character of precious possessions in Osbey’s work.

It is significant that the majority of mourning poems in the first section of All Saints are written for her friends from Black literary circles, particularly those who have lost their kin — fathers, mothers. She is bearing their dead who become her dead. She picks her way through their sorrows, making them her own. In “Another Time and Farther South,” written for literary critic Clyde Taylor upon the death of his mother, she writes,

in another time and farther south
i would give you ashes for your dead
clean white kerchieves of linen or hand-worked silk
spread crushed shell before you
and tell you to kneel there
and weep in dignity
like a man (20).

While mourning for/with her friend at the loss of his mother, referred to as “your dead,” the speaker is also mourning the loss of rituals once observed in the aftermath of death, rituals now relegated to “another time,” in another place, “so much farther south.” In the face of losing, not only the dead, but also our ritual obligations to them, her only recourse is to offer words instead:

these are words and stand for nothing more
but i can say that in another time and so much farther south
i could have led you through the streets in ashes
one of several women bearing you along
to some sainted spirit ground you could believe on —
a man who had lost his mother, still a son.
and we, the cluster of women
could stand aside beneath the palms
 pressing roots of ginger underfoot.
watching you learn the lesson only death would ever teach. (20-21)

For Osbey, death teaches many lessons, including those that concern a culture’s rituals, its enactments of mourning and memorialization. In her essay, “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral,” she examines this traditional celebration of the dead, placing it in long historical context. The old custom of the first or official line, which began with the “solemn processional” from the church and the “exquisitely drawn-out dirge” (98) changed markedly in the 1970s, she observes. It was now replaced by “street revelers” (98), who comprise the famed second line and who, dispensing with solemnity, start the procession right from the church, dancing and blasting to the final resting place. Rather than lament the changes wrought mainly by contemporary youth, Osbey embraces them, viewing these transformations as reflecting “the conundrum of custom in New Orleans. The ability not merely to adapt but to improvise is itself inherent in all our notions of tradition and culture. Here, improvisation is the tradition” (99). For Osbey, the jazz funeral is not a museum object, but rather a ritual that has long responded to the dynamics of history, reminding the reader that “the tradition we laud and cling to was pretty much already dead and dying” (98) by the 1970s. In a delightfully surprising turn in the essay, she traces its decline in the broader context of transformations in the mourning rituals of New Orleans, dating back to the institution of slavery.

Ever a student of history in longue duree, Osbey reminds the reader that Kongolese brought as captives to Louisiana, established the tradition of “vent[ing] the soul’s sorrow with the customary weeping and wailing” after which mourners would “accompany the dead to their resting place with much rejoicing” (104). Of course, the profit motives of slavery killed all that, foreshortening the mourning period, along with its attendant rituals. As Osbey notes, the “Frenchmen and Spaniards who ruled Louisiana were hardly apt to defer their own money-changing rituals long enough to allow for the ‘proper’ heathen burial rites of their slaves” (104) in urban New Orleans. But while slavery’s commercial obsessions may have cut short the time the enslaved could mourn their dead, she commands their descendants in the poem, “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” not just to “honor their dead/as they ought to be honored” but also to mourn and “marry memory to the dead” (All Saints, 25)

In Osbey’s poem, “House of the Dead Remembering,” the speaker proclaims that “memory is everything” (23) but in “The House in the Street where Memory Lives,” the first poem of the volume, All Souls), this faculty inevitably becomes friable and elusive; “it falls apart” (3). In other words, even memories, visceral, embodied, once stored for the speaker in “the tips of my fingers/the back of my tongue” (3) can die and thus their dying must also be mourned.

In the poems of these companion volumes—All Saints and All Souls—such memories live and die in domestic spaces — houses, bedrooms, parlors, and they connect, appropriately, to personal losses, to “private griefs,” to adapt the title from the poem “Desire and Private Griefs,” (6).  In the structure and motion of some of Osbey poems, however, these private griefs often give way to the poet’s more transcendent meditations on death and loss, on mourning and memory across expanses of time and space. In “Requiem for a Tall Man” (All Souls), for example, the speaker struggles to come to terms with the death of New Orleans writer, Tom Dent.  Appealing to such time-worn adages as “death is a road” we must all travel, the speaker finds a measure of consolation in “tales the old people used to tell” bout “soldiers who came among us for a short time only / bringing peace” (125). The speaker then shifts fluidly, almost imperceptibly, to other, distant temporalities, signaled by references to “dahomey,” “slave ships in the distance,” and to “centuries longer / nearer / than we care ever to have it said.” In the language of the poem, this movement amounts to “splitting memory and time, a movement connecting Dent, son of New Orleans, to a long ancestral past, and to a place where “saints do step in congo-time” (125). That congo-time was once stepped in the famed Congo Square in Tremé of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a captive people once danced the Congo and other dances from Africa, passing them down to their descendants who kept them alive, along with other African dances and musical beats. “Requiem for a Tall Man,” illustrates the fusion of “private griefs” and collective memory, however vexed the latter term has come to be. Further, the poem captures the ways in which Osbey sees the cultural injunction — indeed the obligation — to honor and remember “our” dead, as a collective responsibility that includes the “many thousands gone” across the centuries, across expanses of space, time, and condition. Their griefs continuous with our own.

A voracious reader with a greedy intellect, Osbey has long had a penchant for libraries, antiquarian bookshops, and maps, ancient and modern. Indeed, the cover and frontispiece of History and Other Poems (2012) are fashioned from a detail of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 Universalis Cosmographia.


In recent years, her work has shown increasing investment in history and quarrels with the archive, perhaps dating from one of her earliest jobs as a researcher in foreign languages at the main branch of the New Orleans public library.  She described that experience in her essay, “Writing Home.”

Five days a week and sometimes six, I read through countless books, periodicals, and published and unpublished theses and dissertations on the subjects of slavery, resistance and freedom in colonial Louisiana. I sorted and compiled documents and detailed background files on the origins, material culture, family life, and employment of the city’s early African captives. I routinely studied records of births, marriages, and deaths, and translated last wills and testaments of wealthy free blacks who left everything to schools, churches, and benevolent societies. There were catalogues of ships’ arrivals and cargo, inventories of properties including black human property. And there were endless rebellions and uprisings, followed by capture, ritual decapitation or some other slaughter. I followed the creation of armed black militia, conditions under which the enslaved either earned or purchased freedom, the court testimony of the enslaved against their masters, and other peculiarities of urban slavery the way I’d once followed the latest dance moves” (40).

In one way or another, these and other historical details, undoubtedly the fruits of Osbey’s passion for research show up in her writings.  Asked in an October 2013 online interview in Warscapes Magazine, if a poem can be history, Osbey answered with characteristic erudition:

There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. . . Much of the
accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer . . . Much of what we’ve
come to understand about life in pre-Columbian Americas. Indeed, much if not most of
what we know (or claim to know) about the ancient worlds of Africa, Asia, the Americas
and Europe, we know through poetry. . . This presumed divide between history and poetry
really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to seg-
regate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories. 

Osbey’s work has never honored such conventional categorizations, never less so than in History and Other Poems. There, Osbey takes a questioning, reflective, critical view of the very category of history, questioning most especially its suppressions and distortions, not least those pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Her volume’s title poem, “History,” that critical impulse is evident in the volume’s titles poem, “History, which takes its epigraph from Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Islands”: “But I am tired today of history / its patina’d clichés / of endless evil.” This long narrative poem explores unflinchingly the violent history of this trade in Black flesh, of European and American colonialism, the effects and reverberations of which can be felt, the book implies, to this very day. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, the poems of this volume bear the stamp of Osbey’s linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, and her Olympian intellect. The poem provides the reader a history of violence and conquest, of evil and oppression, as well as an extended meditation on history itself, or more precisely our assumptions about it. After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is History? While the speaker of “History” answers this question in a variety of ways, one pronouncement is clear: “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58).

The poem takes the form of a synoptic lesson, albeit a “weary wearied and wearying lesson, “and yet it is to lessons we must go,” the speaker intones, for we have not learned it “well enough” (51). To learn that history requires relinquishing the “chanties about some ocean-blue / because for us / all oceans are forever red” (51). The speaker is clear that, while the “whole of history seems designed to render me sad / disconsolate / broken-hearted / and plain old down” (69), the lessons of slavery’s evils, its “archipelagos of death” must be learned, even if “the real measure of human loss” (51)  never be tallied.

History and Other Poems puts Osbey, the linguist and archivist, on full display, particularly in the appended glossary and notes, which include references to the many terms from African and European languages appearing throughout the volume. In introducing the glossary, Osbey explains that the collection uses “phrases, terminology and historically appropriate names of people, places, and cultural concepts from a variety of languages deployed in the forging of the New World — French, Spanish, Portuguese, reconstituted (New Orleans) Creole — in addition to American/English of the various periods” (73). The glossary is careful to parse their meanings, their uses and misuses.

In the 2013 interview referenced above, Osbey mentions “reject[ing] outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project,” and one passage of the title poem, “History,” addresses this obscene history at the unit of the word “slavery.”  

Then bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor for servitude

metaphor for addiction
as metaphor for love
metaphor for anything
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles —
o fort and fortress —
by the saddest of the old old seas.

Despite the references in this passage to the walls and castles of slave forts, I am inclined to read this section, which takes the form of a curse (a form that Osbey also favors), as reflecting Osbey’s concerns about the misuses of language in contemporary parlance and popular culture. As she has noted in “The Poem as History” interview in Warscapes, such “quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech” functions to “erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people”

Osbey attempts to capture that “lived experience” in History and Other Poems, even knowing how elusive such attempts are in fact. Though Osbey has written a volume of vast chronological sweep, encompassing references from the 15th century to the present, no one knows better than she that the “lesson” offered up in “History” is but a fragment of the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the horror it unleashed upon the world. The title poem, which closes the volume, ends on a curiously teasing note: “for now we may well consider ourselves done/having come to the end of the addenda/ to the preface for this introduction / of our little history / part one” (70). Addenda? Preface? Introduction? History Part One?

In writing a history that is difficult to tell and does not end, Osbey joins other contemporary poets, such as M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work also addresses historical atrocities, only to render them incapable of capture. In her justly celebrated book length poem, Zong! Philip takes up the history of the late eighteenth-century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. As Susan Holbrook notes, in this oceanic poem, which reaches across centuries, Philip works to tell the “untellable,” to deliver a “story that can never fully emerge” (

In bringing History and Other Poem to a close with the teasing allusions to “addenda,” “preface,” “introduction,” Osbey announces, if only implicitly, that she is far from done with history. Luckily, for her band of faithful readers, among whom I count myself, she has recently turned her attention to the history of Virginia in a volume-in-progress titled “Virginia Suite,” which builds logically on History and Other Poems.

Also reflecting Osbey’s lifelong penchant for the archive, this project focuses on interactions of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in the earliest years of the Virginia Colony, considering how perceptions and representations of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown have shaped and continue to shape North American history, mythology, education, law and social/cultural engagement. Now well underway, the seedling of this volume was “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts,” a poem commissioned by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, at the University of Virginia, to commemorate the Foster Family/Canada Park Dedication in 2011. The remains of Foster and other free Blacks, who lived on the edges of the University of Virginia’s central grounds, were disinterred when the school began excavating the landscape to prepare for the construction of a new building, which now houses the History Department. While the commemoration represented the institution’s way of remembering and honoring the dead, the poem represents another, one that raises implicit questions about the complexities of institutional commemoration.

The speaker of this poem addresses the reader from the silence of the grave, engaging in her own act of remembering — of her children, a neighbor, Hester, all once alive in “this one small plot — / briefest sanctuary / home and work / laughter and sweet communion / smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way.” For Katherine Foster and those “free blacks” remembered in this poem, the sanctuary of “sweet communion” coexists with the threat of violence.  In its second stanza, the poem turns to the “gentlemen” of the university nervous about the goings-on “southeast to southampton.” This is an obvious, tacit reference to Nat Turner, whose actions generated a massacre of blacks, in the aftermath of his rebellion. In retaliation, “no one asks” who is “slave or free,” but proceeds to “hacking negroes right and left.” In the face of this slaughter, the stanza’s closing question is particularly resonant: “exactly what / after all / is / a free negro?”

The poem implies other, broader questions critical to the workings and makings of history, memory, and memorialization, especially for the present. The speaker observes the care being taken with “every little thing” as the excavation proceeds. These gravediggers of a different kind, now charged with “unearthing and replanting” the remains of Katherine Foster and those with whom she shares the grave, may show a “tenderness now that we are gone- / or so they tell themselves.”

What do those in the present tell themselves about the past? As the poem moves unhurriedly to its conclusion, the speaker asks related questions:

 and now that we are neighbors to that great institution

who ever will tell what only we could tell?
 who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country.

“In Memory of Katherine Foster” takes a quietly critical view of this project of memorialization mounted by a university built and sustained by the labor of the formerly enslaved. Although Katherine Foster was a “free Black,” she, the speaker of the poem, understands that the line dividing slave from free is porous. She understands, moreover, that the act of honoring and remembering the dead and sacralizing their remains necessitates a violent disturbance of the peace and the sanctuary of the grave’s repose. In other words, erecting this memorial to Katherine Foster requires, in the words of the poem, “cutting through bloodied red earth / cutting through this one small plot,” that held the remains of those in this free black community of Canada.

Osbey accepted a second commission from the University of Virginia, one from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU), producing “Fieldwork” to commemorate yet another burial ground at another edge of the university. This cemetery contains the remains of 67 workers once enslaved to the university and situated below the University Cemetery boundary. Much like “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” “Fieldwork” focuses its attention on the finite, intimate details defining the lives and deaths of those now buried, including the causes of their deaths: tetanus, pneumonia, maternal mortality, typhoid, and consumption. Listed in the “ledger and book” as “unknown,” these souls, notes the speaker, were not “unknown” to “those who love and tend them in the end / not by us / not by rust-red earth / soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend” them.

As in “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” this commemoration of these 67 souls amounts, in its way, to a disturbance. Notes the speaker of the poem,

it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

Understanding the archaeological investments in material culture for the sake of knowledge, the speaker notes nevertheless, “it is well to consider / that research design is one language / reverence another.” Osbey’s own preference for reverence shows in the poem’s final stanza, in which those “unknown,” now named — tessa, hannah, billy, strong mike, william, tom, bacchus, violet, liza and baby liza, old limas, and others — now “surveying / beyond what-all remains of this green/embowered wood.” Now “neither slave nor servant,” they commune in repose, together in “these our truest skins … inside this silty red and clayey soil,” casting off “the evils of this place.”           

It is significant that Osbey wrote “In Memory of Katherine Foster” and “Fieldwork” in this moment when the University of Virginia, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is supposedly “reckoning with its past.”  Founded and sustained by the uncompensated labor of the enslaved, these universities now openly acknowledge that their foundations and prosperity were tied inextricably to this labor, to the violence and brutality on the bodies that performed it. In subtle ways, these poems invite us to think about the questions Saidya Hartman raises about slavery, collective memory, and the ethical responsibilities of commemoration. Hartman is writing specifically about tourism as a “vehicle of memory” at former slave forts and castles, which she appropriately calls “dungeons,” but her questions are much more broadly applicable, including to present-day acts of commemoration in which the consortium of “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery.” Hartman asks, “How can this encounter with the past fuel emancipatory efforts?  Is it enough that these acts of commemoration rescue the unnamed and unaccounted for from obscurity and oblivion . .  . Is there a necessary relation between remembrance and redress?  Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice” (“Slavery’s Time,” 773)?  These are weighty questions, and they are not lost on Osbey, who must perform the delicate balancing act:  accepting a commission in the interest of a university “confronting slavery,” while granting herself the license to register the complexities—at times, the violence—of that confrontation.

In 1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William and Mary,” another poem in “The Virginia Suite,” Osbey brings her poetry of remembrance closer to our times. The College of William and Mary commissioned “1967” to commemorate the year when three African American women — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely — desegregated the college. Although focused on a different time and place, this long narrative poem, comprised of three cantos, takes a panoramic view of history, embedding the moment of the school’s desegregation in the thick, rich context of early Virginia and beyond. Much like “History,” “1967” incorporates fragments from historical documents within the narrative progression of a poem that also seeks to consider the personal costs of historical change. “how-long-how-many-how-much-exactly-is the cost of a slow and peaceful/desegregation?” Here too, as in the other poems discussed here, Osbey does not shy away from considering this question within the trajectory of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle fraught with violence and a

special strain of terror
reserved for negro girl-children
with their bookstraps and lunchbox
smartly gathered or pleated dresses, and socks folded over just so… .
who walked past white mothers cursing, screaming
spitting nigger nigger like anybody’s business

Despite this history of the utter violence of desegregation captured in “1967,” the poem concludes on this note: 1967 “was a very good year to be alive and blacker even than you knew.” We might be inclined to extract from this line the evidence of progress, but such would simplify Osbey’s project, and blunt the sharp edge of her critique.  She is certainly alert in “1967” to the legacy of the past in the present, as well as to what Dennis Beach has termed, those bodies who are “oppressed by history.” The chronological scope of the poem, as well as that of “History” suggests that there is a kind of memory that “throbs with a pain that is past but never past enough,” thus making history “our neighbor,” and remembrance, a particular kind of ethical obligation (318). Osbey has continued to register that “pain that is never past” in one of her most recent poems planted firmly in the present.

Long reluctant to permit her work to be published in anthologies, Osbey recently relented, contributing “AS YET UNTITLED: A Seasonal Suite” to Martin Espada’s anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. This poem is part of another suite-in-progress that Osbey is calling “As Yet Untitled.” That suite is a component of the much larger, “Etudes Project,” which she described in a note to me as a “batch of ‘studies’ in language/rhythm/rhyme/voice/scan, etc.”

 “A Seasonal Suite” explores the wanton loss of black life in the contemporary moment, much owing to the rising tide of white supremacy. In the space in the poem where grief might be, outrage stands instead. The poem sustains this tone from beginning to end. The everyday, relentless slaughter, defining a “season of hate and of violence,” can be “any date year month time” in “regions without borders or bounds.” From college campuses to suburban cul-de-sacs to churches, there is no surcease from this excrescent violence, the victims of which the poem does not name. It seems that there is “no longer interval or spell neither span nor while not stretch” to pause for naming, for mourning these casualties resulting from the “puling entitlement” of white supremacy.

The speaker references these victims only tacitly, but no one who has lived through this “era and epoch” can fail to insert their names: Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, to name but a few. These black bodies all blend into each other, much as the poem piles on, with few line breaks and no punctuation, “after-crime scenes:”

suburban cul-de-sacs small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches

Here this non-stop pile of liquefying references accumulates, spilling over, edging each other out. There is no space for pausing, for catching breath.

The poem conjoins this “era and epoch season” to a long history of bloody violence, including that meted out on Black bodies by the KKK, by lynch mobs, whose “mitochondria” has “mutated” to form new mobs, parading out from behind the cloak of sheets. Those with only “blank whiteness to trade on” engage in a latter-day ritual of holding “sheets / frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond.”

“A Seasonal Suite” invites comparison to “Absent Trees and Rope,” the title Osbey gave her introduction to an issue of Warscapes, which she curated in September 2015. She began that essay by describing the deaths of more than six dozen African Americans from May through October, 1916, “one of the most horrific seasons of racist violence in the United States since the end of slavery.” she went on to say. Historians have long referred to these five months as the Red Summer of Hate, although it was, as Osbey notes, “only one of many peaks in the continuum of white supremacist invective, assault and murder” (

African American poets were not slow to address this violence in their time, including Claude McKay, whose famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” was one response. In inviting the poets Frank X Walker, E. Ethelbert Miller, Afaa Weaver, Duriel Harris, and Major Jackson to contribute to this special issue, Osbey situates herself — and these poets — within a long line of writers of conscience, who have “historically refused to remain silent in the face of racist violence and abuse.” With this issue, indeed with her whole body of work, Osbey illustrates that famous adage of the late poet Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury,” which she quotes in “The Poem as History.” As she puts it, “My own practice has always been to think of poetry first, foremost and always as a way of engaging and interacting in and with the world.” Not only does her writing embody this way of thinking, so do the other public offices she has unselfishly performed. As Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Osbey represented the state in numerous national forums and brought to this devastation of Hurricane Katrina, insights that escaped the titular experts, the talking heads, and the opportunists who exploited the tragedy for their own gain. Her own poem, “Litany of our Lady,” performed on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, references and remembers the disaster, while avoiding the temptation, indulged in by so many, to serve up the tropes of a disaster tour. As she writes in a brief essay accompanying an online version of the poem, “New Orleans has survived repeated disasters, tragedies, cataclysms and reverses … Through it all, she remains. And those of us with enough of her in our blood, skin, teeth and bones are resolved also to remain.” The world of writers, scholars, and teachers is fortunate indeed that Brenda Marie Osbey is “resolved to remain” in New Orleans, the wellspring of so much fine work, but she has also shown an equal resolve to remain planted in whatever place engages her with the world and the work of honoring the dead, whom we are obligated to keep alive.

Works Cited

Dennis Beach. “History and the Other:  Dussel’s Challenge to Levinas. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 30.3 (2004):  315-330.

Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014.

Flores-Silva, Dolores, and Keith Cartwright. “Feeding the Gulf Dead: An Ofrenda of Response to Brenda Marie Osbey’s All Saints & All Souls.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 162-177. Project Muse,

Hartman, Saidya. “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002): 757-777.

Holbrook, Susan. “M. NourbeSe Philip’s Irrecoverable Subjects,” Retrieved from


Lowe, John (Ed.). Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008.

Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Absent Trees and Rope.” Warscapes, 2015. Retrieved from

—. All Saints: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.

—. All Souls: Essential Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015.

—. “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral.” The Georgia Review, vol. 50, no. 1., 1996, pp. 97-107. JSTOR, .

—. “Writing Home.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2008, p. 19+. Gale Literature Resource Center.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

IMG_8320Deborah E. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.  Her publications include ‘The Changing Same’:  Studies in Fiction by African-American WomenLeaving Pipe Shop:  Memories of Kin, The Punitive Turn:  Race, Inequality, and Mass Incarceration, as well as numerous articles, book chapters, and scholarly editions. Professor McDowell founded the African-American Women Writers Series for Beacon Press and served as its editor from 1985-1993. She also served as a period editor for the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, now in its third edition;  contributing editor to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature, and co-editor with Arnold Rampersad of Slavery and the Literary Imagination.  Her service on various editorial boards has included Publications of the Modern Language Association, American Literature, Genders, and African-American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Her awards and honors include fellowships from Radcliffe, the National Research Council Fellowship of the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship.  She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Purdue University in 2006.


Editor’s Note: While our usual editorial style uses poets’ last names on second reference, this essay intentionally breaks with that style as a nod to the intimacy the poet has cultivated with audiences and readers.

By Kendra N. Bryant, PhD

I turned myself into myself and was
men intone my loving name
All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
 —Nikki Giovanni, “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why)” 

Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

&I find Jesus and Nikki to be quite similar, maybe even one and the same. Admittedly, however, I don’t know either that well. But I think I know enuf about them to make such an assertion. See, I’m thinking if Jesus really is on Mars,[1] then Nikki’s fascination with space is really her fascination with herself, but not in an ego-tripping, self-centered fashion; more like a return to Self. Otherwise, why else in her 1971 essay, “Gemini: An Extended Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty-Five Years of Being a Black Poet” — which begins with her own Creation story about a possibly bored Earth who was one with the sun before it, like Mercury and Mars, flew away from the sun (with Venus in tow) — did Nikki write she is “a being from almost another planet” (133, 136)? Maybe she is.

Maybe Nikki is from Mars, and when she turned herself into herself and was Jesus, her body was transported to Earth.

Or: Maybe Nikki is so enthralled with space travel because her identical twin, they both born from one fertilized egg split in two, lives on Mars with Jesus. After all, Nikki is a Gemini. Maybe Nikki’s identical twin communicates with Nikki in her dreams, which is how Nikki knows “[w]hen the man in the moon smiles, [t]he men on Mars dance,”[2] unless Mae Jemison told her so[3]. And maybe it was Nikki’s twin who told her to name her son Thomas, the apostle called “twin.” He, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, was willing to die with Jesus as He journeyed back to Judea, where Jews attempted to stone him, to see the deceased Lazarus (John 11:16). Perhaps Jesus wanted to make sure Nikki had her own “ride or die.”

If Nikki’s twin, who lives on Mars with Jesus, is talking to Nikki in her dreams, then that would also explain why Nikki Giovanni is a writer who believes “a Black beautiful, loving world is possible” (“Gemini” 149). After all, Nikki has spent her life propagating “Black love is Black wealth”[4] thru works that lionize Black feeling, Black talk[5] — writin bout how Black folks cook, quilt, pray, sing, sex, dance, protest — how they “remained humane under inhumane conditions.”[6] And still do.  

I’m thinking: Jesus, who I know was a nappy headed Negro, gave Black folks Nikki cause He knew she would rightly manifest Him (and His Black love) here on Earth — not quite like Martin Luther King, Jr. “I Have a Dream”–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Jesus manifestation, but like Nikki Giovanni Re: Creation–Black JudgementChasing Utopia manifestation. That’s why John, who was a witness for Jesus, begins his book with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). You get it?

Nikki told us she became a writer because she had no other skills she did as well (“Gemini” 135), and that’s clearly because Jesus made sure her writerly self was here on Earth: to right (or write) the truth. And although Jesus gave Nikki what would feel to most of us an unsurmountable task, I believe she was born for it, for as a little girl she daydreamed about “hold[ing] the whole world up if I so chose,” she says, (138) and then explains with “power comes responsibility,” which Nikki recalls her grandmother taught her, was to her people (138).

Undoubtedly, her people are Black women Nikki describes as “the single group in the West intact … the only group that derives its identity from itself” (144) — which is why, when Nikki turns herself into herself, she is Jesus. Her people are Black women, she says; they are the “for and to”[7]— the ones who will be “quilting a black-eyed pea”[8] when Black America lands on Mars, and Nikki knows this because her twin is already there with Jesus. And together, at midnight, over a glass of red wine, they commune with Nikki, which colors her dreams — although she thinks her dreams are colored by her “morning breakfast routines.”[9]

Either way, it is quite likely since Nikki Giovanni doesn’t have a biological twin (she knows of) and human life forms have yet to be discovered on Mars, that Nikki carries a two-ness. But it ain’t the Du Boisian double consciousness that too many Black folks have accepted. Nikki ain’t been engaged in “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 9). For she confesses in an “I am” approach:

I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

(“Nikki-Rosa,” 53; lines 27-33)

Nikki’s twoness, instead, is like an incomprehensible spirit frolicking in a body that operates in a manner inviting people to receive her words, her message. But Nikki is more than “we are spirits having a human experience.”[10] Because her embodiment surpasses our understanding — at least my own — Nikki is alien. Yet! because she is so hueman, she is also a friend.

While I, like most little Black girls, consumed and regurgitated Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping” poem — and even claimed her sixth stanza re: her “recreation” my favorite — I began musing over Nikki’s Jesus self after reading her latest collection: A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017). During her lectures at Furious Flower’s 2019 Legacy Seminar, which I attended, Nikki shared she was learning to cry, thus the impetus of the 54 poems and 111 pages that make up her compilation: “I am trying to learn / How to cry,” Nikki writes in her poem, “Baby West” (6; stanza 14 ). “It’s not that my life / Has been a lie / But that I repressed / My tears” (6; stanza 15).

I listened to Nikki talk about how she rarely cried, how she couldn’t cry, but as of late she cries at the drop of a hat, and I thought of Jesus. I thought of the Jesus, who, like Nikki, was at the frontlines of revolutionary wars, if you will. About how they —  witnessing famine, genocide, and capitalism, losing loved ones, and being rejected — still said yes; still gave love; and still offered the gospel as they stood in their is-ness, in that “I am” spirit. And I thought: Of all the shit Jesus witnessed and endured, why did Lazarus’ death make him cry? What made Nikki want to learn to cry?

According to Biblical scripture, after seeing the sadness Lazarus’ friends and his sisters, Mary and Martha, carried, Jesus “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33). And when Jesus looked upon Lazarus’ dead body, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus eventually resurrects Lazarus, which he might’ve done because He wanted to prove to onlookers He is the resurrection and the life, which He proclaims to Martha in verse 25. Or Jesus so loved Lazarus, as the Jews observe in verse 36, that He could not bear Lazarus’ death. So Jesus told Lazarus to get up. I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think any way the wind blows, Jesus’ weeping humanizes Him, while His ability to resurrect Lazarus speaks to an incomprehensible divinity. Moreover, the letting go, as expressed in Jesus’ tears, conjured life.

Jesus basically surrendered to His feelings, and I think Nikki Giovanni is experiencing a similar phenomenon. In her effort to cry, Nikki purposely engages that human expression that personifies her, and I wonder: What divine thing will she bring forth? What or whom will she resurrect?

In A Good Cry, Nikki writes to her family, friends, and Virginia Tech students. She writes about food, nature, and Black lives mattering, while remembering Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ruby Dee, and Rita Dove. Nikki acknowledges schools, movements, and museums; she imagines Black women singing in Mars, she shakes with Big Maybelle in a Newport nightclub, and she makes clear the difference between school and education. Nikki says she wants to be a fly on the wall (as well as a possum in autumn). She takes her water with sugar and fruit juices, and as a little girl, she loved to dust the bathroom lightbulbs. Clearly, A Good Cry is a myriad of personal experiences and relationships —much like a creative nonfiction memoir that, although points to the author’s life, also points readers to their own lives.

I don’t understand all of the poems in A Good Cry, specifically not “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying,” and I am fine with not understanding it. I don’t particularly analyze poetry; for poetry shouldn’t be as much analyzed as it should be felt. And so I’ve been feeling my way through A Good Cry wanting to happen upon the Jesus piece — the one specific poem that further supports my notions re: Nikki’s relationship with Jesus, particularly their emotionality. (Because I really do want to connect “Jesus wept” and A Good Cry.)

At first reading, I was almost sure “Space: Our Frontier” was it. I’ve been so amused with Jesus being on Mars with Nikki’s twin sister, this poem felt like the Word. In it, Nikki urges NASA to send Appalachian Hill writing students to Antarctica to observe its climate because Antarctica is “the closest thing we have to Space” (10). Especially because the poem’s first line mentions the Middle Passage — which nods to her 2002 “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars)” — and then speaks about endeavoring to Antarctica, “in friendship,” to uncover the life forms that the “quiet side” of the sun warms (9), I initially believed “Space: Our Frontier” was the Jesus piece. I mean, how can one not feel Jesus in Nikki’s expressions, which include lines like: “our dreams [being] the perfect beginning” (11)? But as convincing as “Space: Our Frontier” is, that poem is not it. The it poem signaling Nikki’s Jesus self is “I Married My Mother.”

Almost centering the book, “I Married My Mother” is compiled of 45 lines, the longest being eight words. It is the Jesus piece that signals the resurrection of both Nikki Giovanni and her mother; their relationship is the impetus for Nikki’s other relationships, most of which are shared via Nikki’s lectures, poems, and prose pieces. “I Married My Mother” is Nikki’s declared return to self, or her acceptance of her ultimate self, wherein Nikki finds safety (again) in a “mother-love” [11] made possible through her own communal practices. In other words, just like Jesus’ purpose was made clear in how He communed with the disinherited, Nikki’s purpose is defined through her community relationships.

Understanding the depth of this poem is best done, I think, in consideration of Howard Thurman’s[12] philosophies about one’s purpose, which is thoughtfully explicated in Luther E. Smith’s 1988 “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Smith’s essay is organized into three sections, and part 1, “Reality’s Narrative,” explains Thurman’s ideas about ultimate reality as it exists in community, God, and love. Although Smith’s entire essay is worth discussing here, I will focus on “Reality’s Narrative,” which does the most to support my notion re: Nikki’s “I Married My Mother” being a Christlike expression.

Part 1 of Smith’s essay includes two sections: “Community and God” and “The Love-ethic.” These sections collectively explain Thurman’s theory that ultimate meaning, in other words, one’s purpose in life, is informed by one’s relationship to one’s community, which results in one’s relationship to God, and concludes with one manifesting that relationship to God by relationshipping with others. To understand “I Married My Mother” in terms of Thurman’s “Search for Ultimate Meaning” requires folks to know a little bit about Nikki’s childhood experiences and the relationship she had with her mother and other beings, sentient and non-sentient. (I suggest reading The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), which includes “Gemini,” “Sacred Cows and Other Edibles,” and “Racism 101”).

Nonetheless, to understand “I Married My Mother,” readers should know this: Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee; however, she spent her elementary and middle school years in Cincinnati, OH, until she entered ninth grade, at which time she moved back to Knoxville where she completed her high school years under her maternal grandparents’ guardianship. Nikki’s father was abusive, and at 15 years old, she no longer wanted to bear witness to her father’s abuse. According to Virginia Fowler’s “Chronology” reprinted in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (William Morrow, 2003),  Nikki’s grandmother, “who is involved in numerous charitable and political endeavors, becomes an increasing influence on her, teaching her the importance of helping others and fighting injustice” (xxi). Nikki was also influenced by two of her high school teachers, says Fowler (xxi) — all of whom inarguably facilitate Nikki’s affinity for little old ladies.

In between writing and publishing poetry, receiving awards, and participating in lectures, Nikki also became her parents’ caretaker, purchasing a house her abusive father had to live in, thus removing him as head of household and, therefore, as the dominant force of her mother’s abuse. While Nikki’s relationship with her parents (and her sister who was two years her elder) coupled with the relationships she encountered as a Black woman navigating white America’s supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, are common tropes in Nikki’s poetic works, “I Married My Mother” focuses on Nikki’s relationship with her mother, which is actually an interrogation of herself. According to Howard Thurman, says Smith, “At the most fundamental level of physical survival we can see that each form of life depends upon an other-than-self source for nourishment. Existence requires relatedness” [emphasis mine] (85). As such, in “I Married My Mother,” Nikki describes her relationship with her mother through her relationship with crying — and both, mother-love and crying, are sources of nourishment vital to human survival.

Nikki’s poem begins with her claiming crying is a skill she “maybe” will learn; however, she “automatically” wipes tears from her face, thus implying crying, the process of shedding tears, is not a skill — for crying is the eye’s natural response to removing irritants, reducing stress hormones, and fighting pathogenic microbes — but the when of crying is the skill Nikki hopes to learn. In other words, crying as an expression of one’s vulnerability is the skill Nikki says she “maybe” will learn, noting both her mother and sister did learn to cry. They dared to be vulnerable:

I know crying
Is a skill
I automatically wipe
My eyes even though I know
Is a skill

Maybe I will learn                       
My mother did
When she thought
I was asleep

Following Nikki’s admission (which is her being vulnerable) Nikki invites her sister Gary into her musings. “I think my sister did / Sleep / But sleep is as difficult / To me as crying” (lines 11-14). Gary not only knew how to cry, but unlike Nikki, she was also able to sleep. This departure from her relationship with her mother is significant to understanding Nikki Giovanni’s whole at-home community, for Nikki’s sister seemed to have it all, as Nikki notes in her autobiographical essays and shares in her lectures. Nikki grew up literally under Gary, often admiring her and “bending” to her will, while loving her fiercely.

Nikki then goes on to write: “I laugh easily / And I smile / And withhold any true / Feelings” (lines 15-18). Basically, Nikki laughs to keep from crying, which is a common mode of survival within Black communities. According to Smith: “Thurman writes that ‘at the core of life is a hard purposefulness, a determination to live.’ This purposefulness is not a drive that occurs in isolation,” writes Smith, “for each expression of life is dependent upon other forms of life for the achievement of its potential” [author’s emphasis] (85). Although withholding one’s true feelings is a pretense that may invite unauthentic relationships,  laughing and holding back one’s true feelings are absolutely an expression of one’s “determination to live,” for falling apart — feeling — is a luxury, I think, many Black people (mothers, activists, teachers) cannot afford, for they may not be able to put themselves back together again. I think in the same way Nikki felt she was not afforded the luxury of feeling, neither did Jesus, which is why He did not “fall apart” until the latter part of his life. But to Thurman’s first point, Nikki’s determination to live was dependent upon her relatedness with others such as her mother, her sister, as well as her teacher and father, both of whom Nikki addresses next in her poem.

In the 11 lines following Nikki’s claiming to “withhold any true feelings,” she writes:

Except once I fell in love
With my eighth grade teacher
And spent most of my life trying
To feel safe
Though maybe
I’m safe
After almost thirty years
Which is as long
As I lived with my mother

These lines direct readers to the “mother-love” relationships Nikki found in her teachers, although she speaks of only one here. Nevertheless, in her “mother-love” relationships with teachers, Nikki fulfills Thurman’s second point re: “reality is community” (85). According to Thurman, says Smith, “Reality is community because all creation works together for the completion of the telos of life itself” (85). Nikki’s will to “fall in love” is her conscious intent of being whole, as implied in the lines: “And spent most of my life trying / To feel safe / Again” (ll. 21-23). As noted earlier, Nikki’s father was abusive, and as a result of no longer being able to witness that abuse, Nikki moved to Knoxville with her grandparents where they, as well as Nikki’s teachers, became her safe place(s). However, it is Nikki’s “determination to live” that invites her community to “support the groaning of [her] life toward fulfillment” (Smith 85). Undoubtedly, Nikki’s move to Knoxville, away from her parents, coupled with her will to fall in love, express Nikki’s “groaning of life.”

Furthermore, Nikki’s experience with loving her eighth-grade teacher signals her acquaintance with a loving God, which supports Thurman’s third point: “God is ‘the fact of life from which all other things take their meaning and reality’” (qtd. in Smith 86).  God is All. God is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. In making his final point, says Smith, Thurman explains how ultimate reality is perceived through knowing God, claiming such knowing is a religious experience — but not in the traditional brick-and-mortar-church-attending religious experience. Instead, one experiences God inside loving relationships — which, although I am focused here on relationships with people — includes (as Shug Avery[13] teaches us) all sentient beings. According to Smith, most important to Thurman’s ideas re: God as ultimate reality is understanding “God is not only creator, holy presence, form, and vitality, but God is also love. God embraces creation with compassion” (87). Nikki experienced God’s love within the mentorship relationship she shared with her eighth-grade teacher, for that teacher’s compassion for Nikki mirrored the compassion God has for all creation; God’s love is the ultimate “mother-love.” Thus, in that mother-loving relationship with her teacher, Nikki finds safety and, therefore, “a new sense of self” (87). Quoting Smith entirely best explains my point:

[T]he individual attains knowledge about ultimate concerns through an encounter with God; it is within this encounter that God is experienced as love. Thurman describes the individual’s experience as that which results in ‘the confidence of ultimate security.’ The individual feels embraced completely by a loving power that is responsive to his/her needs. And this not only discloses God’s nature, but it gives the individual a new sense of self. The fact that this love would be poured out upon individuals gives them the assurance of their worth within the heart of God … It is God’s compassion at this most personal level which therefore leads to the conclusion that the relationship with God is characterized by intimacy. God’s nearness is more than proximity and knowing; it is caring response to a person’s deepest needs. This experience of intimacy has the effect of making all matters of ultimate meaning conform with the sensation of God’s love. Whatever is ultimately meaningful must be consistent with God’s loving embrace of life, which includes God’s embrace of the individual. [emphasis mine] (87-88)

Thus, in Nikki’s relationship with her teacher, as well as her relationship with her grandparents, especially her grandmother, Nikki Giovanni is reacquainted with God. (And I offer reacquaintance because Nikki’s mother is her first God experience; however, the at-home abuse she witnessed was dispiriting.) Nonetheless, Nikki’s second stanza concludes with her contemplating her safety, writing: “Though maybe / I’m safe / Now / After almost thirty years / Which is as long / As I lived with my mother” (ll. 24-29).

In addition to being the poem’s volta, which is the rhetorical shift in thought or emotion, these five lines suggest Nikki’s reinstatement, if you will, of her feeling safe with her mother. Here, and into her final two stanzas, Nikki assumes her Jesus self, wherein, theorizes Thurman, “As individuals seek to conform their lives to the love felt in their religious experience, they come to the awareness that the life of the self is inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Although Nikki’s poem doesn’t unveil all the creative contributions Nikki has given the world, especially her Black community, those of us familiar with Nikki Giovanni, know her life — most of which was spent in community with her mother — was also spent “inextricable from the welfare of the social order” (88). Nikki has dedicated her entire creative life manifesting Creator through her relationships with others; and they are documented in poem. As such, Nikki’s “greater sense of self is accompanied by a sense of community. Therefore, [she] seek[s] to increase the expression of love within society” (88). In the beginning was the Word …

Finally, Nikki’s last two stanzas conclude thusly:

Maybe that’s not a poem
Maybe that’s something else
Maybe I just wanted to show my father
That he needn’t be
Maybe I just enjoyed buying
The house he had to live in
Showing her she should have married
Me instead of him
Or maybe since we will all soon
Be gone
I should be happy I found
My mother in someone
Else who loves me

What else
Really matters

Considering Nikki uses the term “maybe” five times in these final verses (seven times throughout the entire poem), I think we can arguably conclude these verses are musings meant for the poet’s own contemplation — similar to Jesus’s prayers in Gethsemane. Although Nikki may not be in agony as the about-to-be-crucified Jesus was, Nikki’s introspective tone — which is at first sullen, then self-righteous, and finally, resigned — suggests she’s been carrying a burden. And no one can be burdened by that or with whom she is not in relationship.

For whatever reason Nikki purchased the house both her parents “had to live in,” undoubtedly love operated in her decision to house and nurture both her parents with a spirit representing God’s immanence and transcendence. Nikki’s shifting tone and her five “maybes” in these last stanzas speak to Thurman’s notion that “whatever is inexplicable has been attributed to God’s mystery … [and] participation in God’s mystery results in coming to know God as a caring personality” (87). When people know God so intimately, argues Thurman, they desire to share that love with others, thus becoming an “instrument of that love” (88). And when love is given, it, too, is received. “What else / Really matters,” (ll. 44-45) asks Nikki in a question that is not a question at all.   

With all of that said, and much left unsaid, I am quite convinced: In Jesus-like fashion, Nikki Giovanni has traveled here to be our right (or write) hand of fellowship, moving inside love and living from its center, so Black Americans may know themselves as they authentically are — so that, we, too, may know God as Nikki knows — and are brazen enuf to pass that mother-love on to others. And that is worth a good cry.  

Works Cited

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” The Souls of Black Folks, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, pp. 7-15.

—. “Baby West.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 4-7.

—. “Chasing Utopia.” Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, William Morrow, 2013, pp. 1-3.

—. “Ego Tripping (There May Be a Reason Why).” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, pp. 125-126.

—. “Gemini—A Prolonged Autobiographical Statement on Why.” Gemini: An Extended

Autobiographical Statement on My First Twenty Years of Being a Black Poet, Penguin Group, 1971, pp. 133-149.

—. A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017.

—. “A Haiku for Mars.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, p. 17.

—. “A Higher Level of Poetry.” Acolytes, William Morrow, 2007, p. 103.

—. “I Married My Mother.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 60-61.

—. “Morning Breakfast Routines.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 73-74.

—. “Nikki-Rosa.” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, William Morrow, 2003, p 53.

—. “Poseidon Hears His Baby Boy Crying.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and  Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 75-76.

—. “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems  and Not Quite Poems, Harper Perennial, 2011, pp. 1-4.

—. “Space: Our Frontier.” A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, William Morrow, 2017, pp. 9-11.

Smith, Luther E. “Intimate Mystery: Howard Thurman’s Search for Ultimate Meaning.” Ultimate Reality and Meaning, vol. 11, no. 2, June 1988,

Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students: Learning and Living God’s Word by the Power of His Spirit. Edited by Jack W. Hayford, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.

[1] Reference to Philip José Farmer’s 1979 science fiction novel, Jesus on Mars (Pinnacle Books)

[2] Line 2 of Giovanni’s “A Haiku for Mars” from A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, 2017, p. 17

[3] Reference to Giovanni’s “Chasing Utopia” essay from Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid, 2013, pp. 1-3

[4] Line 30 of Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa” poem, first collected in Black Judgement (Broadside Lotus Press, 1968), quoted here from The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni (William Morrow, 2003), p. 53

[5] Title of Giovanni’s 1970 collection

[6] During one of her lectures I attended at Florida State University circa 2000, Giovanni discussed the “alien nature” of Africans who survived the Middle Passage and re-created themselves in a New World that endeavored to dehumanize them. She was making her claim for why Blacks are well-suited for space travel, noting they “remained humane under inhumane conditions,” and therefore, could guarantee NASA they’d return to Earth as the spirited human beings they are.

[7] Phrase from line 2 of Giovanni’s prose piece, “A Higher Level of Poetry,” from Acolytes (William Morrow, 2007), p. 103

[8] Final line in Giovanni’s “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars),” from Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems and Not Quite Poems (William Morrow, 2002), pp. 1-4

[9] Reference to Giovanni’s poem with same title from A Good Cry, 2017, pp. 73-74.

[10] Often quoted phrase coined by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French idealist philosopher and Jesuit priest

[11] “Mother-love” is not limited to mothers who give birth. “Mother-love” can occur in relationships where a person (teacher, aunt, mentor, friend) acts as a nourishing source for another who needs such care. A “mother-love” relationship is a relationship of care. 

[12] Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, philosopher, and social activist whose ideas about religion and community informed civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr.

[13] In Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple, character Shug Avery teaches the dispirited Celie that God is All. She relies on nature to make her point, telling Celie, “I believe God is everything … trees … air … birds … other people” (167).

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Kendra N. Bryant NCAT HeadshotKendra N. Bryant is assistant professor of English and composition director at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro. A graduate of Florida A&M University (Tallahassee) and University of South Florida (Tampa), Kendra has an M.Ed. in English Education and a Ph.D. in English Rhetoric & Composition. In addition to almost 20 years of classroom teaching, she has published poems and essays along with scholarly articles in works such as The Inside Light: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (2010); The Journal of Basic Writing (2013); Studies in Popular Culture (2015); and Multiculturalism in Higher Education (2020). She is currently working on a poetry manuscript and actively blogs at her website: